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It's 2014: Is Your Training Good Enough?

My son is my inspiration; he is going to be seven in a few weeks. He talked me into letting him take martial arts a while back, so I enrolled him into a local school in my community. He is moving up the belt rank in Tae Kwon Do, and he is getting pretty good at his craft. Recently, he tested for his latest rank, which means he moves up in belt color, and I got to hold the board while he broke it with his fist to pass his test. It is truly impressive to watch his transformation into a serious competitor when he walks into his class, and I watch him practice his craft every chance I can.

Recently I had an interesting conversation with my son regarding his training; we were at our traditional Saturday morning breakfast at the local diner when he announced he did not want to go to his lesson that day. I asked him why not, since he enjoys it so much and a few of his friends are his classmates. His answer was amazing… “I think I’m good enough for now.” Wow, I thought, I hear adults that populate our fire service say the same exact thing. But my son is only seven: he probably doesn’t know any better… What’s our excuse?

How Good is “Good Enough”?

Fire service training has always served as a springboard for controversial discussion. Kitchen table discussions at our station have always served up many a position when it comes to training. But in general, my experiences have led me to believe that there is a general malaise running rampant within our service when it comes to firefighter training. Case in point: the fire academy I work at graduates literally hundreds of Firefighter I credentialed students a year. Firefighter II students, however, graduate at a rate of less than 100 a year. We also run a multitude of technical rescue programs as well at our facility, ranging from confined space, extrication, rope rescue, trench rescue and emergency building shoring, just to name a few. We may run the awareness and operations level classes in these competencies, but it is a rarity when we will have enough students that return to take the Technician Level training programs. To summarize, we get them in the door to get the entry-level knowledge, but it is extremely difficult to get them to return to expand on the base of their knowledge. What is the primary factor concerning this lack of enrollment? Simply put, there is a deep-rooted belief that the basic level of training for our profession is “good enough.” But we as professionals should always strive to be our best, and never settle for being just “good enough” (photo 1).

So, one has to ask, “Why is that the case?” I am certain that there are a few different reasons that can be posed. First and foremost, the times we live in require most of us to work multiple jobs to support our families and lifestyles. When we are not at work, we try to spend as much time as we can with our families and kids. Whatever time that can be devoted to the fire service is already being spent there, so it is difficult to get many of them back to the Academy once they leave; there just aren’t enough hours in the day. What, then, about the time they spend at the station? Does your training officer review department performance during alarms and incidents, identify areas of strengths and weaknesses, and develop learning objectives to master these areas? Are these programs available for all members on all shifts and work schedules to attend? If not, then the training officer must do everything they can to ensure the needs of the member are being met (photo 2). For example, our department utilizes an annual schedule for training that covers all of the topics per month, including SOGs and Directives. The rules are just as important as the skills are. We are also sure to schedule annual proficiencies that are required such as confined space entry and rescue training, infectious disease control, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) competency and driver/operator recertification. These skill-based sessions can be easily done within the confines and the budgets of all departments.

Secondly, whatever happened to personal commitment and ownership of our capabilities and shortcomings? I am a huge proponent of self-realization, and I have some close mentors that I rely on from time to time to keep my focus in check. However, all of us need to remember that the dynamics of our profession and the tools and techniques we use to deal with these events are evolving and improving every day. It would only make sense that our training evolves and improves at the same pace. For example, reach back into your memory banks and think about the last time you went to a class on building construction. Here’s a hint; if you can’t remember, it has been much too long. We are constantly hearing about changes in concepts and materials, and seeing them up close at construction sites helps fill the void in our training. What about fire behavior? We are firefightersfire is in our name. But add up the hours a candidate spends between Firefighter I and II and look to see how much of it focuses on fire behavior…in my state, in over 250 hours of training, fire behavior gets three hours. That’s right, three hours. Fire is our first name, and we only spend a little over one percent of our initial training discussing how fire behaves (photo 3). Does that sound “good enough” to you?

Preparing for Promotion

Fire officers are charged with a significant amount of responsibility, both on and off the emergency scene. One vital responsibility is the overall training of the company members. Continually polishing the skills of being a firefighter take time, patience and resources. It is vital that the company officer take the skills that each company member brings with them and get them to efficiently work together under stress. This training doesn’t end with graduation from the Academy; it is continued throughout one’s career. The company officer is saddled with ensuring the skills of the company members are up to speed and correct; how can the officer do that with training that is just “good enough”? Furthermore, this duty is multi-faceted: Along with preparing the troops for battle, the officer must also prepare oneself to be able to make accurate, proficient decisions on the emergency scene while leading the charge into a hostile environment (photo 4). Firefighters spend countless hours of study time in the trade books and research materials preparing for an upcoming promotional exam, and many of them are successful in elevating their careers. What happens after the promotion? Continuing education is not reserved for only the rank and file, so to speak, it is also a critical task that all department members, including the officers, accept and participate in. Ours is a profession where we do not get to practice our craft every day we show up to work, which is all the more reason that members accept the position of being a lifetime student of the occupation we chose.

Conclusion

A wise Fire Chief once said that the bravest act a man can make is becoming a firefighter; the rest is in the line of duty. This duty requires firefighters to put themselves in harm’s way, all for the good of the public and our fellow man. A “good enough” stage for this level of responsibility just does not exist. This assignment requires constant attention to detail, and continued education and calibration of fireground tactics, strategy and on-scene operations. As we enter into a fresh new year, I challenge each and every one of us to look within our own skills and abilities, and truly identify what is “good enough,” and what needs some work.

Until next time, stay focused and stay safe.

MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy, where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. He was named a Master Fire Instructor from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. You can reach Michael by e-mail at:FSEducator@aol.com.

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