Change the Culture of Firefighter Training – Part 2

One way to evaluate your fire department's training is by evaluating the programs and instructors.

Officers, from the very beginning, have been taught that you shouldn’t lead from behind. You lead from up front. Effective leaders are those who, when the situation permits, are getting dirty and doing the hard work with their crew. Effective leaders are also great teachers. They provide the hands-on, life-experience teaching that cannot occur in the classroom or on the training ground. It can only occur on real calls in real time. The reverse is also true. Great teachers are also great leaders. They provide the base knowledge and keep that link with students so that the information sticks. They care about the knowledge they are trying to impart.  By default, a great teacher becomes a leader in the student’s quest to be the best they can be. The best teachers I have had do not just stand in front of the room or on the training ground and talk. They lead and they communicate. They become teachers who impart knowledge without preaching.  These same teachers are also the ones who consistently garner positive feedback.

You have probably noticed that within the first paragraph not once did I use the title “Instructor.” Instructor is the common title given to the person who is responsible for teaching a class. In fact, the definition from Merriam-Webster is: “A person who teaches a subject or skill.” However, the title has some negative connotation. For some, “instructor” creates an image of a person reciting information by rote, demanding attention, and demanding the students learn even if the particular form of instruction doesn’t suit the students’ needs.  Unfortunately, because of the current culture as it relates to training, that image is our fault as instructors. A teacher, in the truest meaning of the word, imparts knowledge using effective activities and ensures that the knowledge is used and applied correctly. I prefer the word teacher over instructor for this very reason.

When we talk about changing the training culture, we cannot leave out how the instructor facilitates a class.  Instructors have to be engaging, well-educated on the topic at hand, and most importantly, they have to have the ability to teach. Talking to a room, reading from a book, or explaining how to do something doesn’t necessarily make a teacher.  It takes a certain type of person to be able to transfer knowledge.  How each individual does a task effectively is different.  The needs of some classes are different than the needs of others.  A teacher has to be aware of the current needs for the current students.  A class syllabus may work for five years and then suddenly you find yourself faced with a crowd that cannot absorb the information.  A teacher shines in these moments by adapting and developing until the light of understanding goes on in the students’ faces.   

There is a disease in training that is fairly new.  It can strike in any class, at any time.  It kills slowly in a dim room: PowerPoint.  Excessive use of PowerPoint is one of the many things that kill a training presentation. Many agencies that create training for departments over use it.  My state provides certified instructors with the material for IFSAC FF1 and FF2 certification courses. Some of the PowerPoint material has chapters with in excess of 150 slides. 150! That’s about 75 slides too long (and that is being generous).  Most of that information is stock information.  There can be a fair amount unrelated to department policy or is simply useless information. It’s not hard to understand why eyes glaze over when faced with this kind of PowerPoint presentation.  Attention to the class comes second to just trying to stay awake.

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