Why Candidates Fail Simulation Exercises

Jan. 24, 2011
Eleven ways to learn from the mistakes of others during the simulation test.

The emergency scene simulation, also called the fire simulation, the fireground simulation, the tactical exercise, the tactical problem or some other similar name, can be one of the most challenging portions of a fire service promotional examination assessment center. More and more fire departments are challenging their company officer and chief officer candidates with a promotional assessment center that may include an emergency scene simulation. Many fire departments require a candidate to obtain a minimum score of 70% in these exercises to pass the overall assessment center, not to mention the emergency scene simulation, to be eligible for promotion.

Typically, an emergency scene simulation will consist of a picture or pictures of an emergency scene, most likely a fire in a type of environment you would likely find on your department (residential structure fire, commercial structure fire, high-rise structure fire, wildland fire, strip-mall structure fire, apartment/hotel fire, etc.). The simulation will last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, depending on what your department wants to evaluate in its promotional candidates. I have seen departments show a different picture every 30 to 60 seconds, with the expectation that the candidate provide a first-in officer radio report and discuss assignments to the first-alarm companies, to a 20- to 30-minute simulation with multiple issues or challenges for the candidate.

In the end, every point counts on a promotional examination. Thus, it is critical to be detail oriented and ensure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s. What’s the difference between an overall score of 80% and an overall score of 81%? Well, possibly a job! Let’s look at what I have experienced or have been told are the top 11 reasons candidates have been unsuccessful at an emergency scene simulation exercise:

1. They did not prepare for the position. Take the time to focus on the position you are aspiring to; that way, it should not matter what you are faced with during the simulation and more importantly, real life. Too many candidates just try to get through the test and end up cutting corners in their preparation.

2. They focused too much on being a “check-the-box” incident commander. It’s OK to have checklists, as they help jog the memory and ensure you are covering the bases. However, don’t get so focused on checking the box that you cannot defend or explain what you are doing. For example, if you are the incident commander, it is one thing to say “Truck 1, you are assigned as ventilation group.” It’s another thing to have the raters now turn the tables and say “OK, you are the Truck 1 captain – please explain the direction you would give to your crew, what ventilation considerations you would have, etc.” Too many candidates focus on just assigning the task that they don’t think it out if they were put on the hot seat, how they would actually do the task.

3. Lack of knowledge of building construction, fire behavior, and strategy and tactics. These are the big three, in my opinion, and something we can do a better job at learning and teaching others, especially with all of the changes in building construction and fire behavior over the years. Lightweight-truss roofs are failing much sooner than conventional roofs and rooms are flashing over much faster due to fire loading and the make-up of the contents. Take a look at firefighter fatality reports and you’ll see these three items usually in the top 10 contributing factors of line-of-duty-deaths.

4. Inability to use – and appropriately use – the Incident Command System (ICS). Like it or not, the ICS is a valuable tool to assist with managing and organizing the incident. Look at firefighter fatality reports and you’ll see ICS-related items, such as span of control, accountability, command and control, and communications as being contributing factors to firefighter line-of-duty deaths.

5. Lack of time management, organizational and planning skills. You will only have a set amount of time to effectively command and control the incident. If time runs out and you have failed to do key items such as establish a rapid intervention crew, have sufficient resources in staging and provide for the accountability of your personnel, etc., when you are faced with the firefighter down/trapped/missing scenario, you’re going to more than likely fail the simulation and have to test again next time. Luckily, the failure will occur in the testing process and not real life.

6. Poor listening, oral or written communication skills. During your simulation, there may be written documentation to complete, such as a tactical worksheet. Even if nothing is presented or required, you’re going to need to track your personnel and resources. As for oral communications, that is one of the key areas you will be graded on during the simulation. Make sure you provide clear, concise communications, make sure you keep your cool and do not yell or scream when they start turning up the heat, and make sure you are able to hear and comprehend the multitude of directions you may be receiving, so you don’t miss that “Mayday” call when the dispatcher is advising you of such, and you’re already in the middle of dealing with someone asking direction in person.

7. Lack of command presence. Face it, command presence is critical to ensure your credibility and demonstrate to the raters, and everyone you are commanding in real life, that you are in control. This also includes inadequate or inappropriate requesting of resources and/or personnel. When you pull up to a high-rise building with fire on the 10th floor, there is a good chance you’re going to need more resources than your department may even have, let alone your entire county or region may have available. However, the last thing the raters want to hear when you pull up is “Send us everything you’ve got!” That doesn’t show much command presence, nor is it the appropriate way to order resources.

Help out the dispatchers by sequentially and systematically ordering resources as to not overload them and to make sure you get what you need. “Start a second alarm, and when you’re done with that, start a third alarm.” That alone will keep them busy for about five to 10 minutes, if not more, especially if it requires mutual aid. Then, a few minutes later, “Start me a four alarm and when you’re done with that, start me a fifth alarm.” Or, send me the 20 closest engine companies, the five closest truck companies and the five closest chief officers.”

8. Lack of understanding of “how to run an incident.” This is easier said than done, but it is common to see candidates who have never really planned out or prepared in advance how they would actually fight that residential structure fire, that high-rise fire or that wildland fire. Granted, every fire may be different than the next, but there are still certain things that must be done in a certain order when possible, such as RECEO (rescue, exposures, confinement, extinguishment, overhaul) with ventilation and salvage taking place as needed. If you have a better acronym to ensure you’re covering the bases, use it. The key is planning in advance of just how you will fight a fire in a certain type of building or situation long before it occurs, but being flexible enough to modify your strategy and tactics as needed.

9. Inability to anticipate and then handle “issues” they may be faced with. These may include:

• Firefighter(s) down, trapped or missing

• Multiple patients

• In-your-face bystanders, who could include the media, city officials, family members or the public in general

• General problems that may arise, all requiring immediate action, such as exposure fires or separate incidents

Don’t expect the simulation to be easy; just when you think you’re cruising along just smoking the simulation, they’re going to throw you a curve ball and you better be able to hit the home run. When you get the firefighter down situation, you had better have at least one rapid intervention crew in place as well as resources in staging. When you get the media in your face, you had better have a public information officer to assign them to or tactfully have them stand to the side awaiting the arrival of the public information officer. For a working fire at the room-and-contents level, it’s always nice to have at least one apparatus in staging unassigned. At a fire beyond a room and contents, I would suggest a full-alarm assignment, just to give you some flexibility if needed, especially if something bad happens. If you think you only need one extra apparatus, you probably should think of ordering an alarm (typically two engines, one truck and one chief) as you can always turn them around or cancel them if you don’t need them.

10. Letting nervousness get the best of them – and it shows! If you can’t control your nervousness during the emergency simulation, how are you going to be in real life when the stress is more realistic and there is more at stake – such as lives? The best thing I’ve learned is that people typically fail for two reasons: they are unprepared or they are nervous. The preparation part is something you can definitely do; as for the nervousness, being properly prepared through lots of practice may help reduce your nervousness. If not, then you must figure out how to deal with it.

11. Inability to defend their actions or non-actions. There is a good chance you will be questioned by the raters during or, most likely, after the simulation, to allow them a chance to test your knowledge, skills and abilities. A common question that is asked is “Why did you do (or not do) this or that?” Or, “What would you do differently?” Many candidates want to start spilling the beans and changing their mind, thinking they did something wrong.

First of all, realize everyone is asked the same question, so don’t feel guilty. For example, if you’re asked “What would you do differently,” your answer could be as easy as “I believe I covered all of the bases and had sufficient resources and personnel on scene or in staging; I cannot see anything I would do differently.” Perfect; that may be a great answer, if that was the case. You have to be flexible when necessary, as that is what is needed in real life. More importantly, you have to defend your actions or non-actions; stick to your guns when necessary, but be able to activate Plan B or Plan C when needed.

While many of these tips could be used on any event within a promotional assessment center (such as an oral interview, a written exercise, or even a subordinate counseling session), they are most relevant to the emergency scene simulation. As a rater, I’m looking not only for the safe beginners, but for those that can also hit the ground running if they were to get a badge the day the list is established as many departments may not offer acting time due to their rules or the number of promotions needed.

The raters and ultimately your department are not expecting perfection during your next emergency scene simulation exercise. However, they are looking for someone who can get promoted the day the eligibility list is established and then do the job itself in a safe, effective and efficient manner.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a Firehouse.com contributing editor and a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College Fire Technology Program in Hayward, CA, where he has been teaching fire technology classes since 1993. Prziborowski is a past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association and was named the 2008 Ed Bent California Fire Instructor of the year. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor, has earned a master’s degree in emergency services administration, and is finishing up the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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