School Days: Your Fire Service Report Card

June 14, 2010
Ryan Pennington suggests that you should sit down and honestly grade your performance after each response.

School days, school days.. if you are anything like me you were so glad to see those days go, especially the report cards. So that brings me to this: it's 4 a.m. and the bells drop for a fire or EMS call -- at the end of call just how would your report card hold up? Is your report card good enough to be competitive by today's standards. Forget competitive, is it good enough to keep you alive on each call you run? Now you're thinking what does a report card have to do with the fire service?

From kindergarten through whatever academic level we choose to complete, we all are familiar with the same three things: teachers, students, and report cards. The report card is probably the most feared of the three; however it universal language makes it easy for everyone to understand. So if I showed up in your station today and asked your department for your report card, what would it say? Would you be just the average "C" student that shows up to class with little preparation time, hoping the test is multiple choice? Are you the "A" student we all should strive for, the teacher's pet in the front row with the perfectly typed notes that has the answers to all the questions?

The Grading Process

So maybe you have never thought of grading yourself or keeping a scorecard of your performances and accomplishments. Recently, after returning from a lecture on the various types of employee behaviors, my thoughts went back to my school days. Now you're thinking that I'm crazy right? But could there be a rhyme to this reason. On this particular day the lecturer used the analogy of each employee's performance being a type of grade. I thought to myself, well I'm out of school and here comes the report card again, what is that all about? But after some time I decided that it is a realistic way of looking at our career.

So how do you utilize a grade scale when it comes to our specific job? Look at it like this: "A" would be a skill that you can perform with no trouble, "B" would be a skill that you perform but struggle with some technique, "C" would be having trouble completing the task, and last but not least is the dreaded "F' that would be given if you were not able to accomplish the task at all.

Each time you return to service following a run sit down and grade your performance. For example your last call was a car fire with a small fire in the engine compartment. You arrived on scene with your personal protective equipment in proper order, pulled the crosslay the proper way, got a good knockdown on the fire but had a hard time releasing the latch on the hood on the car. Would you give yourself a "B?" You were able to perform the task, but had some technique problems with the cable release. This particular skill is one that has to be practiced and drilled on over time. So with some review you will feel more comfortable with it the next time that you are asked to perform it. By giving yourself that grade you begin to realize your own strengths and weaknesses, what needs work and what comes naturally to you. We are always students in life and we always need to work on improvements, we can't forget that just because we no longer show up each day with our school books and apple in hand.

So our school days are over, but the question still remains: what types of students do you want in your station? Which is the better of the two for our chosen career? That's where the fire service becomes a little less black and white and a whole lot of grey. Is it important that you have the knowledge needed to perform the necessary assignment? Yes! But, is it also equally important to be able to make quick decisions on your feet? Absolutely! In our world you need the knowledge of the that straight "A" student coupled with the fast thinking wit of a "C" student improvising on their exam. So let's look at our careers from beginning to end and evaluate how we are doing.

I've gone back to school again, but this time I am the instructor and I have put together a four-part lesson plan that will show you how to break down your careers from rookie to retirement while giving you helpful hints and ideas to keep you an honor roll student. Oh yeah, and this time you can leave the apple at home.

Elementary School (Years 1 - 3): The Newbie Phase

Everyone in the fire service starts at the same spot. Day one is basic recruit training -- showing up to work with big ideas on what a career in firefighting is all about. This is very similar to your first days of elementary school with one exception, you are now an adult. This time you should have the wisdom to learn the right way from beginning to end. But unlike your first years in elementary school you may have to deal with some bad habits from your previous education. Note taking skills, study habits and your home life can interfere with your learning environment. With that in mind you walk into the unfamiliar surroundings of a whole new world ready to get your education started.

Your elementary years in the fire service start at day one and carry through the first three years. These are the days of learning the basics of everything we do. From pulling hoses to running medical emergencies we need to build a good solid base for the future. You need to follow the lesson plan and do your homework. It is important for you to understand the why's and how's of everything that is asked. Why do we not spray water on smoke or how do you control an unresponsive patient's airway are some questions and answers that you will learn. Remember to not just learn the skill, but learn why we handle it that way. For example we don't spray water on smoke because it doesn't aid in cooling the environment. We control an unresponsive patient's airway with an oralpharangeal airway because it is a simple airway adjunct that keeps the tongue away from the trachea. It is important during the early stages of your career to fully understand these things. Why? Because, as adult learners, we understand things better when we are given practical applications and solutions.

Now you are asking yourself, does he want us to grade every call we run? Well, that is not going to happen. I would grade when you are asked to perform a skill that you feel like you have not done to your fullest potential. For example, you are the highest trained EMT on the engine and you run a cardiac arrest and your ambulance is 15 minutes. You arrive on scene establish the patient is pulseless and properly defibrillate him back to a talking patient. Following the call would you give yourself an "A?" This would be a good grading situation due to the infrequency of using the AED. I would use the grade scale quite often in the earlier years due to the experience level. A lot of times in the fire service we make up for lack of experience with training and knowledge.

I chose the three year mark to end the elementary school or formidable years because at three years you should have a good grasp on what is expected and had experienced many different types of emergency situations. Does this mean that you know it all? Absolutely not! But at this point your experience level is catching up with your training level to give you a good solid base for the future. Toward the end of the three year period is a good time to introduce some specialized training, such as rope rescue, confined space, or water rescue. Each of us should choose a specialty area to be trained in to make ourselves more diversified and, in turn, more valuable to our department. So grab your backpack and head to the front of the class because you have graduated to junior high school. But before you go let's grab the grade card and see where you're at?

RYAN PENNINGTON, a Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic with the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 7 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 15 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. Ryan was a guest on the Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings podcast. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at [email protected]. 

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