Figure 1: The words which author Michael Donahue lives by as a fire service instructor.
Photo credit: Michael Donahue
The author (left) works with two students at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.
Photo credit: Glen E. Ellman
While we generally cover skills in this section, it has come to my attention that a lot of instructors visit venues like Firehouse.com to pick up different ideas, tips, tricks and maybe learn about a new topic they have in their crosshairs.
So, instead of discussing a particular skill, I thought why not write an article about instructing the Technical Rescuer? This should be a good topic to help some new or inspiring teachers out there, and perhaps a veteran will take one or two things away from this article to add to their game.
Here’s my honest story about how I came to teach the way I do.
Meet the Teacher
I suffered through most of high school mainly because of poor teaching methods and a serious lack of inspiration and motivation. Those two words (inspiration and motivation) play a big role in my overall plan of attack. Once I was out of high school (and pretty much during high school), all I wanted to do was make music. I was, and still am, a drummer. I mention this because I carry the entertainer part of me into all the classes I teach.
I decided to become a firefighter at age 18 and with that I came to find out that meant a lifetime of education, from the thick Firefighter 1 textbook to all the continuing education classes you take to maintain your certifications or learn about new topics. I came to learn the more educated you were, the safer you would be. I also wanted to be the knowledgeable guy who other firefighters looked to for the answers.
Now, taking all these classes you’re exposed to a lot of different instructors, some amaze you and some deter you. It’s the ones that amaze you that leave the mark. They are the ones who push guys forward, inspire, motivate and actually teach. Anybody can be an “Instructor.” You just need to get certified. But it takes someone special to be a teacher. There’s a big difference between “instructing” and “teaching” and believe me, this is something that students quickly pick up on.
I became an instructor on a whim. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it or if I would be any good at it, but to my surprise, it has been a huge success for me and this is why....
I’ve always learned things differently. My mind is wired for creativity, much like all people in the technical rescue world. So, when I teach I present skills and topics in sometimes very unorthodox manners (I actually prefer the term “creative”). I will never, ever tell any student something is difficult. That sets them up for failure from step one. Everything is always “easy.” Bam! Right off the bat they’re thinking, “Great, this is easy. I can do this!” Now they’re in the right frame of mind to learn.
Entertainment is big. If you lose your class, you’re done. You may as well just go teach the material to the wall in the hallway. Be energetic, take risks and entertain! Your class is your show. It can either be a boring opera or a high-powered concert. You make the choice. There’s a lot more that goes into teaching, but we need to move onto the topics you’ll be teaching. (If you want to hear me ramble some more on my crazy methods and ideas, my email is located at the bottom of the page. I’d love to help you in any way I can.)
Think Outside the Box
Technical Rescue is a diverse and specialized area of our world in emergency services. To succeed in this arena you need to be a thinker and have the ability to think outside the box. Those two skills are critical to a student’s success. Most students have the ability to think outside the box. You, as the instructor, may need to just show them that they do. Set them up for success. Here’s an example. If I we’re teaching a student to build a vertical shoring system to support the floor above us, I would, of course, give him the basic knowledge of how a shoring system works and the load ratings of any equipment in the area. Before class I would have brought out some 4-by-4s, 2-by-4s, 6-by-6s and maybe some 2-by-8s; all 8-foot lengths. I would also have some pneumatic struts and associated equipment as well. Once you begin and see what the student’s plan of attack is, throw him a curveball. If he starts building his system with 4x4s give him a few minutes and then throw your “pitch.”
Teacher: “The structural engineer just informed us that the estimated load we’re shoring is about 15,000 pounds, so 4-by-4s are going to be a no go. What are we going to do?” (Being that the student is new to this field, coach him a bit to bring out the knowledge you taught him.) “How about using 2-by-8s?” (If his answer is no, ask him why and what he wants to use.)
Student: “No, 2-by-8s won’t support the load, I want to use the 6-by-6 lumber because I know at 12 feet its support load is roughly 20,000 pounds and our uprights are 7 feet so they will work.”
Teacher: “Great, sounds good to me. Let’s first throw up a temporary shore to give us a safe area to work in. What can we use here?”
Student: “Let’s use the struts!”
Although these weren’t actual problems, by asking the student questions and offering him multiple materials to use, you’re training his brain to make decisions on the spot. Even though it’s training, the student is under pressure because it’s a new and unfamiliar skill he’s doing and human nature gives us the desire to impress someone who is at a higher skill level than us. Thinking outside the box, under pressure, is the desired goal…well, that and demonstrating the skill properly.
If you can level the playing field with your students and take away any insecurities they may have, their ability to learn will increase. The trick is to insert the needed “pressure” to really hammer home importance of the skill they’re learning. Realistic training seems to work well. Instead of using a white board and a projector to discuss a trench rescue operation, arrange to have an actual trench dug and hold a live exercise. Remember the “entertainment” part. Maybe arrange to have a hysterical site worker approach your students screaming for help. Or add some fake smoke to a confined space drill and simulate a broken steam pipe.
I teach students a skill such as how to build a 4:1 Mechanical Advantage System, then allow them to build it once or twice then a surprise them with this line, “Now, put these blacked-out safety glasses on and build the mechanical advantage system again under zero visibility. Their first reaction is that I’m nuts, but then they do it, and wow, their confidence goes through the roof. I’m sure anybody reading this has thought of these or similar ideas, but some may think it and not implement it. It really makes a big difference. The sky and your creativity are the limit.
Rescuers in this field tend to learn better visually and by using their hands. I know this because I’m one of them and I also tend to poll all my classes to find that out. All the disciplines you may be teaching are clearly hands-on activities. So, why not teach them that way from the beginning? I call my lectures “active lectures” because there are always hands-on activities involved. I’ll always find a way to get the materials or prop into the room. Even if that means building something special to make it happen. Lectures are your biggest challenge as an instructor. All eyes are on you, and if you don’t bring your “A” game with you the students will have you benched in their mind with in the first 10 minutes. Bring your “A” game, turn the volume up to 11 and belly in. Technical rescue topics such as Confined Space Rescue, Trench Rescue, High-Angle Rescue and Building Shoring are very technical subjects as well as very interesting topics.
Never...Never...Never use bullet points. They will kill your crowd. If you’re discussing Anchor Systems in a rope rescue lecture and Slide 1 discusses what bombproof anchors are, just show a picture of a steel I-beam or a structural column. Discuss what they are and give examples using your voice, not words on a screen. By doing this, you’re constantly interacting with your students and they in turn are focused on you, not the typeface on the screen. This really makes a big difference in your overall class flow and the students’ retention of what you’re teaching them. I learned this in several books I’ve read on presentation and when I implemented it, the difference was huge. I was never a big bullet point guy to begin with, so I tweaked a few things and came up with a few ideas of my own.
Quality equipment is a major “must have” when training in these disciplines. Everything you’re doing is high risk and that risk must be managed by proper quality equipment. It not only makes your operation safer, but students will learn faster and better using the right gear for the right job. An example would be building a raker shore using 2x4 lumber and finishing nails. Yes, you can duplicate a raker shore using that material, but just because it looks like a raker, doesn’t mean it is one. Cuts will be different, the weight of the system will be different and any visual memory your students developed will be based on the wrong materials.
Visual memory plays a big role in our jobs (for most of us, anyway). When the you-know-what hits the fan, that picture that pops in your mind and guides your hands needs to be the right one. If money is a factor, budget for the drill or hire an outside agency to come in and hold the program for you. Either way, its money well spent. You’ll never be able to put a price tag on proper training that saved someone’s life.
Before I terminate command here, I ask you to read the paragraph in Fig.1. The author is the late Steve Jobs. These are words to live by as a person and as an instructor. I know I do.
Stay Safe, Stay Progressive