Hands-On Training

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.

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.

Serial skills require a pattern for completion. This pattern requires the student to begin at a specific point and complete the skill through a series of motor movements. When you teach individuals how to operate a pump, they are taught in a serial sequence. There are steps to be performed in sequence before the task can be completed.

The instructor must divide the task into manageable teaching units. These units are arranged by complexity or organization. If a skill is extremely complicated, divide the skill into small manageable units that are then totally reassembled other skills require solid organization. These skills are characterized by having interrelated steps. Completion requires that all the previous steps be correctly performed.

Motor Learning Concepts And Applications identified three part-task training methods. Fractionization involves practicing separate components of a larger skill. Segmentation is used when a skill can be taught in sections and then added together until all of the parts add up to the whole. Simplification uses methods or tools that are not as complicated or dangerous as the real device. An example of simplification is juggling. The students start with bean bags and then move to bowling balls.

Usually there is a specific amount of time that can be spent on developing the skill. We refer to this time as practice. This is the time that the students get to work with the actual tool or device. During this time, they are expected to reach the necessary level of performance. This acceptable level has to be determined by the instructor. Each skill requires a different amount of time to reach the acceptable performance level. If individual students need additional assistance, the instructor has to set aside time for remedial training.

The performance is gained by practicing the skill. There are two ways to classify your practice time: mass or distributed. In mass practice, very little time is allowed between trials. A trial is any attempt at performing the skill. Mass practice can be useful when teaching a discrete skill. In a distributed practice setting, the skill is taught and ample time is allowed between trials.

In the fire service, ladder skills can be massed or distributed. In a mass practice setting, firefighters raise and climb ladders for four hours without a break. In a distributed setting, they raise and climb the ladders for 15 minutes and then take at least a 15-minute break. This pattern continues until four hours are completed.

The 4-Step Approach

There are four steps to delivering a psychomotor class: description, demonstration, development and display. Each of these steps has a specific purpose.

During the description portion of the class, the students are taught the terminology and safe operation of the device. This material is explained and the ground rules for the practice session are discussed. A short quiz (oral or written) can be administered to make certain the students are ready to move to the next phase. The instructor can use the actual device or other instructional aids to describe the operation of the tool. This includes diagrams and descriptions of the proper operation of the tool. The material is delivered in a lecture-type format.

The main objective of the demonstration phase is to acquaint the students with the operation of the device. This requires the instructor to perform the skill. It is wise for the instructor to practice the skill in advance of the class. During this demonstration, using a whole-part-whole approach can be helpful. Teach the skill at full speed showing the end result, then slowly repeat and explain each step. Be sure to answer the student's questions. Conclude by performing the skill at full speed. After the demonstration, the students begin practicing the skill.

Let each student practice the skill. Remember, people learn at different speeds. There will be those who learn the skill very quickly, while others struggle. Correct any techniques that are improper. If a student is having difficulty, individual attention may be required. For dangerous operations, provide extra supervision. During this portion of the training class, the instructor becomes the coach. While circulating through the class, the instructor provides encouragement and corrects any glaring errors. The instructor should refrain from performing the skill for the student.

During the practice session, the instructor provides adequate equipment for the students. Providing facilities and equipment can be a challenge. There are mock-ups, simulators, actual devices and computer-assisted activities that deal with skill development. The instructor has to know what instructional aids are available and how they contribute to the objectives of the training program. After identifying potential aids, scheduling becomes an issue. There is a definite advantage to securing the devices well in advance of the program. The instructor should inspect the aids to make certain they work when the students begin their practice session.

After the students have mastered the skill, let them display their skills. The evaluation can be a sophisticated measurement system or a cursory observation. Occupational certification requirements, local departmental regulations or documentation re-quired by regulating agencies determine what type of verification is mandated. During the evaluation phase, do not reteach the skill. If the students need skill refreshing, organize a separate review session.

An example of a simple demonstration is starting a chain saw. The instructor points out all of the important features of the saw and discusses the uses, parts and safe operation of the saw. After that is completed, check to see if the firefighters gained the knowledge necessary to work with the tool.

The next step is to start the saw. Let the saw run and then shut the saw off. Repeat each step used in starting the saw, explaining every detail necessary for the firefighters to start the saw. After you have explained the starting procedure, start the saw, using the same steps. If major confusion exists about the operation of the device, you may have to stop the practice and explain the information again.

Answer any questions and then let the firefighters work with the saw. Be sure to correct any errors. Safety is an issue that requires specific attention. After all the students have had a chance to operate the saw, you can check their performance levels. This can be done in a formal setting or you can have a mass saw starting, depending on how many saws are available for the firefighters.


Lives depend on the firefighters' performance. The more efficiently the training is delivered, the better they perform. Everyone benefits. There are no shortcuts to skill training.

Reviewing videos and reading training materials cannot replace actually performing the skill. This is particularly true with basic, hands-on skills. Remember, the results are critical and there are a variety of steps to help the instructor and the students reach their goals.

Hints For Teaching Firefighting Skills

  1. All the students have to perform the skill, even those who say, "I can do that." Include the rationale for the skill and how the parts interrelate to a complete skill.
  2. Be very specific with the directions on how to perform the skill. Students need to know each required step or movement. Do not confuse the students with shortcuts.
  3. Students have to get their hands on the tool, device, or prop. The training device should closely resemble what the student will find in the field. Sometimes, because of size, complexity or cost of the device, simulation may be necessary. When the instructor has a limited amount of time, the students can practice the skill. Perhaps the students can be divided into smaller, more manageable units to enhance the use of the training aid. This may require additional tools and increased number of supervisors.
  4. Improvisation is natural. Students will try to perform the skill in their own sequence. As long as the skill is correct, this flexibility allows the student to put the skill into their own "words."
  5. The instructor's importance diminishes when the students begin to master the skill. Coaching becomes the dominant role of the instructor.
  6. Everyone has limited time to deal with skill training. Divide the time into manageable units that will produce the greatest skill retention. The instructor, based on experience, will need to decide what works and when.
  7. Use corrective action sparingly. Provide direction and positive encouragement. Be careful not to overdo either. Too many positive comments can cause over-confidence. Negative comments can destroy a student's progress.
  8. Before teaching a skill, be sure all the needed tools and materials are available and in working order and you know how to perform the skill. It can be embarrassing not being able to demonstrate the skill to your students.
  9. If you allow the students to practice in a group setting, they tend to migrate to groups they find comfortable. Since people learn at different speeds, it is not unusual to see those of equal ability in the same group. During this time, the faster learners may circulate to help those in need. Frequently they try to convert the slower students to their method. The outcome usually is that the students become confused and greater time is needed to learn the skill.
  10. Be careful about using students as assistants. Total chaos can result if the students are taught a variety of methods of performing a skill.

James B. Straseske

James B. Straseske is assistant director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute at the University of Illinois in Champaign.