Change the Culture of Firefighter Training – Part 1

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

When asked to describe the positive things about the training culture in a department. The prevalent response was that new people who come to the department want knowledge. They want to learn and they are eager to obtain and use that newly obtained knowledge.

Senior Firefighters

When asked who the “leaders” were at the company level the response surprised me. The majority of those who responded said that those leaders were not the company officer or any type of officer. It was the senior man of the house or senior members of the house. It was these folks who the vast majority of the ranks take their lead from. Lieutenants are a close second.

When I walk into the training room of a department I am not associated with I am always interested to see the welcome I will get. More importantly, I watch how the senior members and officers of the house will treat each other, interact with each other and treat the training they are about to receive regardless of the topic. I have found that these two groups control (and my small survey showed that they control) the attitude and therefore the culture as it relates to the training of the department or house. If they are disinterested, everybody is disinterested or at least acts that way. If they are resistant to the information being presented, everybody is resistant. Couple that with the fact that when an outside instructor is not presenting, it’s these disinterested/resistant folks who are most likely teaching the bulk of classes. We have a big problem.

Generally, people see training that is commonly done several times a year (vehicle extrication, fire behavior, etc) as redundant, boring and not needed. In the volunteer service, this equates to people not showing up for training. In the full-time departments it equates to the instructor facilitating to a room full of people who are disengaged, not paying any sort of attention and likely had a lot to say about how worthless the training was before the instructor even walked in the room.

This attitude was again likely brought about by company officers and senior members who have “been there, done that.” That attitude was given to the newer members of the department, and the apparent never-ending cycle of poor, inadequate training continues. The chief issue with this is that we are comprising our safety and the safety of the public.

I am not sure I can put into words how vitally important training is, especially for departments that don’t run multiple calls a day, and don’t run the hard calls frequently. When you don’t have the experience of several calls a day, training is your call standard. Training is how to practice and use the necessary skills we all need to do the job. Those departments that run multiple calls a day get the benefit of continually practicing necessary skills in a real-world situation. Those that don’t run multiple calls have to practice with due diligence and train hard for when that call comes out. Not training can cost your life or cost the lives of your brothers and sisters.

It’s important to realize that at the company level the department administration has deemed whatever topic is being taught as valuable, relevant and core to our mission. New, safer ways to do our job are out there. New, safer ways to protect the public are out there. When we don’t pay attention in training we are compromising our safety and the safety of the public. As officers and senior members of the department it is our job to make sure the new folks on the department are taught the right way to do things and the safe way to do things, not just “the way I was taught” or “the way it has always been done.” We do that by taking training seriously. Safety is paramount. Without proper training, without good knowledge, we cannot do what we do safely. There is inherent risk in this job and we all know it. But we can minimize that risk by training hard.