Change the Culture of Firefighter Training – Part 1

Erik Wood examines the current culture of firefighter training, including how it is approached and accepted.

Every day, across the country and probably around the world there is some version of training being conducted in a firehouse. Far too often, that training consists of the “old timers” sharing war stories about tactics used on fires current personnel never saw with equipment that the department no longer has. Then you have the senior guys of the house who say “I have been through this training at least twice a year for the last 20 years. I don’t need to be here for this,” and sit in the back of the class, arms crossed, and staring off into space. Worse yet in volunteer departments they just don’t show up. Training has also become the place to show the new guys “how a real fireman does it” with no appreciation for modern, dare I say, safe practices. It has also become a place to pick on the probies and “break them in.” Too often these types of “training” do not include modern tactics, practical knowledge, practical practice, discussion covering the reality of fireground operations, and worst of all leave out safety. It’s also important to remember that in 2011 and 2012, 16 (8 each year) of our brothers and sisters died while participating or as the result of training. Even when we train it’s dangerous!

The U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA) numbers for firefighter fatalities has traditionally gone down. In 2003 it was 112, in 2012 it was 81. In 2013, the fire service lost 101 firefighters and so far in 2013, the number is six. Training, or lack thereof, is obviously not the main culprit for these numbers. As we all know (and as the USFA says) the number one killer of firefighters is overexertion/stress (56% of all 2012 deaths). What we do in all phases is inherently dangerous in the best of circumstances. You add poor, inadequate or non-existent training and we are increasing the likelihood that bad things will happen. Training is important.

Attitude Towards Training

It is not only the type of instruction that counts. It’s the departments’ or houses’ attitude toward that training, regardless of the type, that sets the tone and determines the quality of training. Everybody is responsible for this culture: from the probie on his first day, to the senior man in the house with 25 years of experience, to the Lieutenant in charge of the apparatus, to the station Captain, Battalion Chief and Fire Chief. The fire service is a zero sum profession. We live or we die by our knowledge, training and our experience. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot have one without the other. Knowledge learned in a book or through practice cannot be truly learned or truly appreciated until you have had to use it in a real-world situation several times. Regardless of how hard instructors try to fabricate real-world experiences, only calls can provide that. Experience is not gained just by running calls. Experience is gained when you use the knowledge you have obtained by putting it to use on calls.

So how do we maximize the time allotted to us for training and most importantly, how do we create or change the culture in our department to make training what it should be? These questions are not easily answered, and the needs of one department are not the needs of another. In general, I believe all of us want and need quality training.

In an attempt to get a broader perspective, I sent out a survey to approximately 30 fire departments. These fire departments ranged from very rural all volunteer to strictly full time in medium to large cities. Departments were asked to describe the negative things about the training culture in their departments. Overwhelmingly, the response was that senior firefighters (non-officers), and the majority of company officers (from lieutenant to battalion chief) view training as a “must do” during the shift or month, and not as an opportunity to impart knowledge to improve operations and safety. These members typically have a lot of negative things to say about training and that “poisons the well” allowing newer members take that same attitude.

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