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Firefighter Training: Never Left the Basics

How often do you hear the term “back to the basics” thrown around in the fire service world? It is a term that reminds us to go back to the beginning and revisit some of the first skill sets you learned as a firefighter recruit. One question that keeps popping up in my head is why did we leave the basics to begin with?

As I approach my 20th year in the fire service, having served with a number of different sized fire departments, I believe it is a direct result of many factors including distracted leaders, training plans that get too complicated, complacency and overconfident firefighters losing interest in what we “already know.” Let us look at why the back to the basics term simply needs to be eliminated from our vocabularies. We should change it to “never left the basics.”

Distracted Leaders

The managers of today’s fire service are dealing with more and more issues. From increased call volumes to an all-hazards response plans, many leaders can lose focus on some of the most important functions: fireground work. All the planning, preparation and funding don’t really matter when it’s game time if their front line firefighters can’t pull a hoseline and make a push. Understanding that basic skills should be practiced constantly by all firefighters will reduce the risk of injury or death of their crew members.    

Training officers, fireground commanders and chief officers should keep this function in mind when planning their training calendar. Reviewing basic skills should play a part of all training evolutions. If a firefighter is found to be lacking a needed skill, the officer should set aside time for one-on-one interaction. Discovering the need for remediation is best served on the training grounds where no one’s life is at risk and time can be spent on fine-tuning the skill set.  It can be a challenge to keep more experienced firefighters interested in a continual stream of “basic” skills, so a wise manager will involve these folks in the teaching, planning and reviewing to use their experience and allow them to take ownership in the program. 

Complex Training Plans

Now, talking to the training officers, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and see if you have lost focus on the main goal. The goal of any training plan should be to prepare firefighters to manage an emergency safely and confidently. This doesn’t always involve boxes filled with wires, floors that drop out or elaborate training props. Those objects are all great tools for teaching firefighters, but have limitations due to cost and preparation. Props like this cost money that is not always available to us due to a number of budget issues. They also consume our time when we have to build them and that is time you could be spending on building the skills necessary to make your firefighters ready.  

This may not be a problem for some departments because they have a training staff that has enough people to accomplish these tasks simultaneously. Many other departments lean on one or two members to run a training division, which can take them away from their main purpose, training firefighters. Throwing ladders, packaging a downed firefighter or pulling a crosslay does not need fancy props, they need aggressive firefighters who are not afraid to get sweaty while being motivated and educated by a training officer that is passionate about preparing them for their next fire. These “basic” skills should never be referred to as “back to anything.” These skills should never have been left!  Practice them until you are proficient in any weather condition.

Complacency

I know this topic gets beat down like a dead horse, but I strongly believe that complacency is a huge hurdle that we all face. “I’ve been to a thousand fires like this and I don’t need to crawl around on the floor training because I have been a firefighter for X number of years.” Really? Just too many variables need to be trained on constantly throughout your entire firefighting career. Some examples of these are air consumption rate, fitness levels and just plain old rust! Yes, I said rust, like the kind the kind that accumulates on a piece of metal that has been sitting out for an extended period. Rust can gather on us all, even if we only stop training for a short amount of time.

How many times have you ran a fire where the first hoseline stretched ends up looking like a unsprung coil of wire instead of a nicely laid out hoseline? If you don’t take the time to keep these skills fresh by practicing them, the rust will gather and your performance will suffer. Many firefighters who don’t receive training can go a year or more without pulling a hoseline off the engine. How can we expect them to operate efficiently at a fire scene if they have not pulled hose in over a year? You can’t, that’s the main focus of this article.

However, complacency steps in on a company level. I often hear statements like, “How many ways are there to pull a crosslay anyway?” or “I'm not a rookie why do I need to practice that?” Being respectful of the firefighters with years of experience, when was the last time you did it 100 percent correctly and efficiently? I have been pulling hose for a number of years too and the last time that I did it was not perfect, so I could use some more practice. Is perfection attainable or realistic? Probably not, but we should all chose to chase it when we are practicing. Realizing that you have become complacent is the first step toward fixing this problem.

Overconfident Firefighters

Doing our job requires us to have confidence in crew members and ourselves. From time to time I see this concept taken to the extreme. To the point where the cockiness blinds them from realizing that they still need to review the most basic functions. We all want to think that we can do our jobs proficiently and most can, but sometimes that confidence can get you in trouble. Just because you can vent a roof in a minute tonight does not mean that you could do it a year later if you have not practiced it. Most skills that we use are perishable. Meaning if you don’t use them you will lose them.

This is where the “back to the basics” concept really confuses me. If our skills are perishable, outside conditions can affect us and our fitness levels go up and down, why do we ever leave the basics? Overconfidence plays a huge roll in this. I am not trying to bash anyone. Fact of the matter is many things have influence on your performance and overconfidence should not be one of them. Should we be aware of gaps in our skill set, understand our fitness level and train in any type of weather? Yes! The only way that you will find a deficiency is by doing the skill; wouldn’t you rather find this out in training? Determining that you forgot how to manage an SCBA emergency as it is happening is not optimal. We need to make this discovery in a controlled environment like training. 

Just like training, deficiencies in our fitness levels go up and down. Family, other jobs, and life’s distractions can lead to big gaps in working out. Before you know it, you have gone from completing your first half marathon to back out of shape. Fitness needs to be part of our lives every day. For the weather aspect, there is no excuse for not being acclimated to every season. Start slow and get prepared for the hot or cold. The main point that I want to hit home is that you do not want to let your overconfidence talk you out of doing it. “I don’t need to wear my gear at a brush fire in the heat, I've been fighting fires in it for X number of years.”

Conclusion

So, are you ready to forget the “back to the basics” slogan?

The point of this article is to help you realize that we should never have to go back to something that we never leave. Grab some firefighters, set a few goals and get to work. Don’t get lost in setting up elaborate drills, props or plans, just get out and build firefighters who can function in any condition. Voltair once said “Perfection is the enemy of good enough.”

Do not strive to make training a perfect scenario; make it good enough so your firefighters get the basics skills down to where they perform the same way every day! Build their confidence and always keep their ego’s in check by offering them solutions to their deficiencies without making them feel insecure. We want humble, wise and proficient firefighters riding in our seats. I would feel proud as a chief if I knew that my fire department is as fully ready as possible for the next run because we never left the basics. The only thing we need to get back to is the next basic skills session.

RYAN PENNINGTON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 8 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 18 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. He is the author of the "Views From the Jumpseat" blog on Firehouse.com. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at: ryan33@suddenlink.net.

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