Training for the Volunteer Firefighter

May 1, 2008
Jack Gardner details how to train effectively for the unexpected. Firefighting is a team effort and the best results are achieved when individuals practice as a unit.
How To Train Effectively for the Unexpected

Training in any profession is key to improving the skill levels of the individuals involved. Training in a volunteer organization is just as important, but sometimes harder to achieve. Training as a volunteer firefighter is difficult because of the very nature of the organization. It is rare that all of the members of a company or department are in the same place at the same time. And it's been said that "no two calls are the same."

How can you train effectively for the unexpected? Keep in mind that firefighting is a team effort and the best results are achieved when the individuals practice as a unit. Regular, efficient and meaningful training is a must. Unfortunately, this just doesn't happen on a regular basis in the volunteer fire service.

The Importance Of Training

The importance of training to the volunteer firefighter comes down to one key concept: protection. Well-trained firefighters are able to protect themselves, the other members of the crew they are working with, the equipment they are using and the citizens whom they are charged with serving. A well-trained firefighter is an asset to the department as well as to the community.

Volunteer firefighters should train regularly, and the training should be efficient and meaningful. Many volunteer fire departments hold weekly drills. Even with that schedule, there is no guarantee which members will show up, how many members will be there or even if the weather will cooperate. There are too many uncontrollable variables that cause training to be irregular, inefficient and useless. To combat these issues, volunteer departments must make a sincere effort to design a strong training regimen.

Regular Training

Regardless of snow, rain, sleet, hail or darkness of night, every fire department should have a planned drill for every week of the year. This is not to say that engines have to go out and water has to flow, but it does mean that some skill should be practiced every week. The skill of checking the oil in the gas-powered exhaust fan may be just as useful as learning how to set the relief valve for a multiple-hoseline pump operation. Because firefighting is so complex, there is always some facet of the job that can be practiced.

It is also important that a drill be held regardless of the number of members who show up. If a drill is planned for 20 members and five show up, modify the lesson and carry on. If an outdoor drill is planned and there are 10 inches of snow on the ground, go to plan B. If the firehouse has to be cleaned, either plan the cleanup for another night or divide the time between housekeeping and training. Initiate a no-excuse policy. There should be a training session each and every week.

Efficient Training

Efficient training simply put means that there is a well-planned lesson ready to be delivered. A well-planned drill includes the following:

  • A clearly defined goal. Notice that it is a single goal. You can identify multiple objectives, but there is only one goal. Make sure that the firefighters who are taking part in the drill are fully aware of what that goal is. Tell them the goal at the beginning. Teach and practice the goal during the drill, and finally tell them what they have learned at the end of the drill. If done correctly, they should all dream about the goal that night in their sleep!
  • A lesson format. This is when the trainer decides whether to use a hands-on, classroom, or combination approach. Each technique has its benefits. Take advantage of them.
  • People. Personnel are necessary to make the training run smoothly and safely. The trainer may need additional help giving instruction, ensuring that all safety measures are being adhered to, and that the crews are at full strength. Make some telephone calls and post a sign-up sheet a week in advance. Everyone should be engaged throughout the drill.
  • Materials. The drill may require engines, trucks, radios, foam, ladders, projectors, screens, chairs and even refreshments. Knowing what you need ahead of time and ensuring that it is available and in good working condition will make the drill run smoothly.

Meaningful Training

Firefighters will learn more, retain it longer and be more skilled at techniques that have meaning to them. Canvass the members to find out what they feel is important for them to know as volunteer firefighters. Analyze recent calls that may have highlighted a skill that needs to be strengthened. Even the weather and seasons can be helpful in setting goals.

Use departmental, local and state recertification requirements as drills. Throughout the drill, everyone should be continually made aware of the importance and usefulness of the skills being taught and learned. Some skills are used on a regular basis, others might have to be put into "mental storage" and called upon at a later date.

Some volunteer fire departments respond to enough calls that help to keep the firefighters' overall skill levels high; many do not. Regardless of the number of calls that a department responds to, drills are very important. Since they are so important and volunteers' time is also important, the drills and training must be held weekly. They also have to be well planned, and useful.

JACK GARDNER is a member of Mahwah, NJ, Fire Department Company 4. He joined the Leonia, NJ, Fire Department at the age of 15 as part of the Civil Defense program, where he served as engineer, lieutenant, secretary and president. Since joining Mahwah Company 4 in 1979, Gardner has served as lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, secretary, treasurer, vice president, president and chaplain.

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