Hands-On Training

James B. Straseske outlines a four-step approach to teaching firefighting skills.


Firefighting remains a hands-on occupation. The safe use of tools and equipment is a vital component of any firefighting operation. Firefighting skills are performed under adverse conditions. Firefighter and civilian lives depend on the skills of those that respond to the emergency...


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Firefighting remains a hands-on occupation. The safe use of tools and equipment is a vital component of any firefighting operation. Firefighting skills are performed under adverse conditions. Firefighter and civilian lives depend on the skills of those that respond to the emergency.

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Photo by Ken Love
The lives of firefighters and civilians depend on the skills of those who respond to emergencies.

Teaching skills to a group of firefighters requires that the instructor be ready to teach a practical, hands-on lesson. Over the last five years, we have seen a decline in the ability of firefighting students to perform basic hands-on tasks. There is no one cause for this decline. The lack of fire activity, emphasis change in the local training program, specialty classes or any combination of these events have contributed to the decline of basic fire suppression skills. Since the time devoted to basics has been limited, the instructor has to use the training time wisely.

The teaching methodology used for skill training is different than for teaching a knowledge-based objective. The purpose of this article is to describe techniques that are useful when teaching hands-on skills.

Teaching Skills

There are major differences between teaching cognitive and psychomotor skills. Cognitive skills emphasize intellectual outcomes. The focus is on the ability to recall facts and apply high-level thinking to issues.

A change in behavior is verified through a written examination. A hands-on or psychomotor skill involves the use of a motor skill. Richard A. Magill (Motor Learning Concepts And Applications, Brown and Benchmark, 1993) describes a motor skill as an action or task that requires voluntary body movement to accomplish a goal. Psychomotor skills are tied directly to performance evaluations. The student has to perform at an acceptable level.

Norman E. Gronlund (Stating Objectives For Classroom Instruction, second edition, Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1978) describes a taxonomy for psychomotor skills. The major categories are:

  • Perception. Uses sensory input to cue performance.
  • Set. Readiness to perform the skill.
  • Guided response. Instructor lets the student perform the skill under a watchful eye.
  • Mechanism. Responses are habitual.
  • Complex overt response. Skillful completion of a complex act.
  • Adaptation. Modify movements to adapt to special circumstances.
  • Origination. Ability to create new movements.

R. Gagne (The Condition Of Learning, Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1985) divided skill acquisition into three phases. The first phase is the cognitive stimulus provided by the instructor. In this phase, the student learns the procedures outlined for the skill. During phase two, the intermediate phase, two changes occur. The student learns timing, increasing smoothness and decreasing outside interference. The students understand the requirements and how to improve their performance. The third stage is when the skill becomes automatic or routine. Outside influences do not affect performance.

There are three kinds of skills discrete, continuous and serial.

Discrete skills have definite starting and stopping points. The evaluation of these skills requires the evaluator to determine if the skill is right or wrong. Tying fire service knots is a discrete skill. There are distinct starting and stopping points and the knot is tied correctly or incorrectly.

In a continuous skill, there is no clear starting or stopping point. The evaluation can be based on speed, time, height, cycles or any other concrete measurement. Training a firefighter in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is a continuous skill. The basics are used as the starting point and the training continues to be more rigorous. The drills become more difficult and require the firefighter to perform at a higher level.

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