New Ideas Overcome Obstacles to Great Training

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Hood River (Ore.) Fire Chief Devon Wells knows how difficult it is to keep firefighters engaged in training and how challenging it can be for a training officer to come up with new ideas, as well as handle all the paperwork involved with a good program.

At Firehouse World in San Diego, Wells shared his ideas for managing training programs and keeping enthusiasm up among the rank and file.

Coverage of Firehouse World  2011

Called, "Training Program Management for Small Departments," Wells delved into the concepts of keeping firefighters engaged, and stressed the importance of consistency with the types of training and the quality.

Wells, who is also the Western Regional Director for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), an organization dedicated to promoting firefighter safety through education, knows the effects of bad training, or no training. For volunteer departments, it can translate into firefighters losing interest and volunteers dropping out, as well as increased injuries.

He opened the class by asking the audience the different kinds of impediments they have to training. Members said lack of time, conflicting assignments, boredom from repetitive exercises and getting volunteers motivated to take time from family and other organizations and work to participate.

Wells has heard it all before.

"Training is hard," he said. "It takes a lot of effort and you have to think outside the box," he said.

Training is a recruitment and retention tool, Wells said. That's why it is so important to keep people interested and engaged.

"Training is a big part of that," he said.

Budget constraints are affecting training everywhere, Wells said, but that should be the last place chief officers and those with budgetary responsibilities should look to make the cuts.

"It can be expensive to send people to San Diego for training," Wells said. "It can be expensive to send them to FDIC (Fire Department Instructors Conference), but when you cut money from out of town training, you've done significant harm to your training program. ... when I have to cut my budget, I'm not looking at training."

Even when budgets are not flush with money for out of town travel, it's important to keep the training interesting, fresh and relevant.

Few, if any firefighters like the mandated annual training required for blood borne pathogens, or CPR, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). So, Wells tries to sneak it in when he can.

For instance, he may have firefighters do rescue training and drag a firefighter out of harm's way. Then he may direct the firefighters to perform CPR on the down firefighter to complete the scenario.

"There, you've just completed your CPR proficiency training for the year," Wells said. Firefighters are amazed sometimes that they've already completed something and they didn't even realize it. "Sometimes, they even say it was fun."

Wells also suggested that using UV lighting in blood borne pathogen training is a fun way to get the job done. He suggests covering a CPR mannequin with special powder that glows under UV lighting and letting the firefighters work on the "patients." After, they'll see that even though they had gloves on, they've rubbed their noses, or touched their mouths and, therefore, exposed themselves to the pathogens, Wells said.

He also advocated using electronic learning, such as DVDs, and podcasts with iPods. Give firefighters a digital assignment with a deadline for completing it and let them work at their own pace. He suggested that departments might even consider buying iPads for new recruits and downloading them with books and firefighting information.

"How about that for a recruiting incentive," Wells said.

There's also a lot of virtual reality equipment available for training today and that's very appealing to the "gamer" generation that has grown up with electronic technology used for recreation.

There's never anything like real training, however, Wells said. While virtual reality training has it's time and place, firefighters still need the actual, hands-on training. Driving simulators are great, Wells said, but apparatus operators will still need to feel how apparatus handles to be proficient at driving.

He also said that training officers might want to consider creating mnemonics for training that will help planning and keeping firefighters on track. He suggested things like "mandatory Monday" where firefighters review all the required training like CPR; and "Tactical Tuesday" where fire tactics are taught; "Wounded Wednesday" for EMS training, "Think it Through Thursday," for challenges and critical thinking exercises; "Frightening Friday" for review of LODD reports; "Scenario Saturday" where photos of fire scenes can be reviewed and discussed as learning prompts; and "SOG/Safety Sunday," where fire department policies are reviewed and discussed.

"You might get laughed at initially, but they'll come around," Wells said, noting that firefighters in his combination department know that if it's Wednesday, they'll be talking about emergency medicine.

Wells also stressed the need for documenting all training exercises, especially in the "litigious society we live in."

"Liability is huge," Wells said. "That's why documentation is so important."

He offered some hints about how to keep track of firefighter training with matrixes and charts that are easy to follow, once implemented. He also recommended folders for each firefighter that are separate from their personnel files. Training records, even on individuals, are public documents, but things like spouses names, addresses and other personal information is protected.

"You don't want to get caught in a situation of handing someone a file with that personal information in it," Wells said.

A well-operated training program is an asset to any department, he said, and once firefighters get on board, they'll want to train and be more engaged in their professions or in the service as volunteers.

"Keep your eyes open for opportunities," Wells said. "Your firefighters, especially volunteers, come from all kinds of backgrounds in the corporate world and other places. They have ideas and if you listen to them, or let them teach, you'll have a friend because you listened to them."