When Does Training Turn to Abuse?

May 1, 2004
Training or abuse? Intimidating or guiding? Is it training or hazing? Webster defines hazing as: “1 a: to harass by exacting unnecessary or disagreeable work b: to harass by banter, ridicule, or criticism 2: to haze by way of initiation.”

When does fire service training turn to abuse? When is enough, enough? These are questions all fire officers and instructors need to ask themselves. They need to ask themselves what their motives are and what they are trying to accomplish.

First, let’s look at motive. There should only be one accepted motive when dealing with fire service training – to provide the best possible training, in the safest possible manner, while providing the most realistic, up-to-date and accurate information available on the specific subject.

Fire officers and instructors should be viewed by their students (firefighters) as people they can look up to and count on for leadership, guidance and mentoring. The atmosphere should be one that invites and encourages learning. It is the job of fire officers and instructors to encourage and guide firefighters who are weak. It is not the trainer’s job to see how fast recruits can be run out of the academy or encouraged to quit. The students should not be intimidated by or be fearful of their officers and instructors. It is counterproductive to teach by intimidation and fear.

The following is an actual situation of how fire officers and instructors used their positions to intimidate rather than to guide or lead. A probationary firefighter going through probie school was having trouble wearing the facepiece of his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while he was in a mask confidence course. The probie kept pulling the facepiece off. The department training officer, who was a captain, continually screamed at the probie and told him that this was unacceptable. A few days later, the probie firefighter failed to show up for work. When contacted, he stated he could not do this anymore and quit.

The captain in this case clearly used his position to intimidate that individual rather than providing guidance to help him through his fear. The firefighter was then contacted by a concerned lieutenant from the same department, and advised that help was available for such problems. The lieutenant arranged a meeting between the firefighter and a peer counselor who is a career fire chief. The individual was counseled and trained on how to work with and overcome his fear of wearing the SCBA facepiece.

About a year later, that individual accepted another position with the same fire department and graduated from the fire academy. While in the academy, he was one of the best in his class in the use of the SCBA and even provided help to his classmates who were having problems.

Some officers and instructors get carried away with mask confidence training. Mask confidence training should be designed to develop firefighters’ skills and confidence for using SCBA. This training should be geared toward preparing firefighters for the very real possibility that while wearing SCBA they can become entangled, hooked or trapped, or that SCBA can become damaged or malfunction, and teach them how to deal with these situations. This training should not be utilized to see how small a space we can have firefighters crawl through. While training needs to be as realistic as possible, it must not place the trainee in a compromising position just for the purpose of showing that you can. Mask confidence should not be confused with confined space training. Seventeen-inch tubes are not mask confidence; they are confined space and should be used as such.

Training needs to have a pre-determined, measurable and obtainable objective. The fire officer or instructor needs to have a game plan prior to starting a training evolution, looking at what the class is trying to accomplish. If it can be clearly demonstrated that the means will equal the desired training objective, then go for it, as long as the training is carried out in a safe manner.

Let’s look at an example. You set up the basement of a smoke house for a drill. First, you place two distributors through holes in the first floor and flow water throughout the evolution. It should be noted that the floor drains in this building are clogged and extremely sluggish, which means that 18 to 20 inches of water covers the basement floor throughout the evolution. The basement has one set of stairs that leads from the outside of the structure, one wall-mounted escape-type ladder covered with steel grating that you have covered over with sheetrock, and one set of metal stairs covered by a steel hatch door mounted on the first floor, over which you have placed a couch.

Now, you send your probationary firefighters down the outside stairs and tell them they must search and find another way out of the basement. Is this training or hazing? What is the value of this “training”? Is this basement free of rodent and pigeon droppings now that we have made a swimming pool out of it? Are SCBA and PASS alarms going to function properly now that they are submerged? There are some real safety and training issues with such an evolution. The officers and instructors conducting such an evolution need to seriously look at their objectives.

We have not learned from our mistakes. History continues to repeat itself. We continue to maim and kill firefighters during live-fire training evolutions. We as officers and instructors must not accept this as a risk of the job.

Training needs to provide the best possible knowledge and hands-on experience available. It should look to improve and reinforce the skills of the firefighters, as well as to seek out the weaker individuals and provide them with the assistance and guidance needed to make them better firefighters. These should be the challenges that drive a trainer, not to see how difficult you can make an evolution or how hot you can make a fire.

Fire officers and instructors should ask themselves these questions: Have I done all I can to provide the best knowledge, guidance, leadership and mentoring? Have I been a role model for these firefighters to look up to?

Paul R. Gerardi is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and has served the past 20 years as a career firefighter, currently as a deputy chief with the Fairview Fire Department in Westchester County, NY, where he is the training, safety and special operations officer. He is a New York State Fire Instructor, a Westchester County Fire Instructor and the director of the Career Fire Academy in Westchester. He received his bachelor of science degree in public safety/fire science and his master of science degree in organizational leadership from Mercy College. He is a nationally certified fire service instructor level II and firefighter level II.

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