Building a Recruit Training Program

July 1, 2016
Allan Rice and Matt Russell explain why an effective program includes appropriate resources, facilities and procedures.

Firefighter recruit training builds the foundation of a local fire department and sets the stage for everything that will happen during an individual firefighter’s career. This fundamental activity must be a planned and coordinated effort that is based on proper candidate and instructor selection, adherence to specific standards and curriculum, and the availability of adequate facilities and equipment. The backdrop for any successful recruit training program is a consistent training philosophy along with a specific set of policies and procedures that emphasize safety and proficiency while contributing to a positive organizational culture.

Candidate selection

The success or failure of any fire service organization is determined by its ability to select candidates who are the right “fit” for the job. The right fit for firefighter recruits often conjures thoughts of personal characteristics and ethical behaviors related to physical fitness, mental fortitude, academic ability, honesty, integrity, selflessness, adaptability, compassion, trustworthiness, ability to be a “team player,” and punctuality. These characteristics appeal to individuals who wish to serve their communities as emergency responders, but also serve to eliminate those who do not hold the same values.

There are three tenets that form the basis for success in the fire service:

  1. Positive attitude
  2. Excellent work ethic
  3. Discipline

These three elements must be pervasive in all that a firefighter does. They set the tone for the physical and mental well-being of the individual, and inspire uncommon commitment to other team members and to constituents. Of those who serve in the Armed Forces, it has been said that military members are willing to sacrifice themselves to save others, while private industry will sacrifice others to save themselves. That same description of selfless sacrifice would fit the fire service. When asking who would be the right fit, find a candidate who is uncommonly committed to their peers, to the organization and to those we serve.

When it comes to fitness, adoption of the pre-employment Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), which is a predictor of a candidate’s ability to perform firefighting tasks, standardizes the physical evaluation process. Interview panels can then focus more intently on other, more intangible factors that are difficult to evaluate during the selection process.

The fire service is somewhat unique in its ability to draw together people of various backgrounds into a shared purpose. In order to expedite the assimilation of recruits into the fire service, it is incumbent to stress from the first day of recruit academy that their performance will be measured against NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. NFPA 1001 does not differentiate based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any such traits as a means of gauging success or failure for firefighters. Such labels alter our focus from the potential broad scope and nature of the profession to the individual. When we label ourselves as something other than firefighters, we limit the scope of our possibilities and place boundaries on the service that we provide to our communities.

As important as diversity is in today’s fire service, it is crucial that we emphasize first and foremost the brotherhood and sisterhood that bring together like-minded individuals for the good of our communities. This is simply the fact that we are firefighters. Diverse backgrounds and experiences engender affiliation, build rapport and fortify relationships with our coworkers and constituents, but also accentuate the true strength of our profession. We are trusted because of our diverse abilities as problem-solvers, and therein is the authenticity and splendor of our diversity.

Instructor selection

A positive attitude and discipline are as important for training officers and instructors as they are for recruits. Recruit training should be applied in a consistent, even-handed and unbiased manner. When discussing recruit training, some instructors are fond of statements such as “we make it (training) real.” The problem is that realities are different for each recruit. No one has identical academic or physical capabilities. Training officers must be disciplined to ensure that every candidate has the opportunity to successfully complete training that is rooted in the NFPA standards—not training based on beliefs or opinions of an overzealous individual who supplants the standards based on his version of reality. They must also be consciously aware of the tendency for training experiences to become gradually more difficult with every passing generation. If not managed properly, recruit training instructors will continuously attempt to make physical fitness and training evolutions just a little bit more difficult than when they went through the process. This will lead to training that eventually washes out qualified candidates and becomes dangerous. Lastly, instructors should be assigned to the training class in adequate numbers to ensure safe instructor/student ratios throughout the course.

Curriculum based on standards

A valid and effective recruit training program will employ a consistent curriculum that is based upon an identifiable standard. NFPA 1001 is the nationally accepted standard, and it is quickly gaining international acceptance as well. Although it is a consensus standard based on broad input, there is still flexibility in how the job performance requirements (JPRs) are achieved. It must also be remembered that this standard establishes the minimum qualifications for entry-level firefighters, so recruit training programs should reflect that fact.

The assumption should be that this is not the last training that a firefighter will ever receive, and so there will be many opportunities to develop more advanced levels of skill and knowledge. The process of recruit training should be based on a planned course of instruction that lays out in detail each day’s topics, schedule and activities, and strict adherence to this training plan is a must. Just as we insist that there is no freelancing on the firegound, we also cannot allow it to be part of a firefighter training program. Recruit training programs that go well beyond the capability of the new firefighter are not beneficial to the individual or the fire department, and the same is true of programs that fail to follow an established standard.

Policies and procedures

In order to ensure that a recruit training program accomplishes its intended goals, certain policies and procedures must be in place in advance. These policies and procedures must cover issues such as safety, attendance, adequate academic progress, physical performance, disciplinary measures and many other aspects of the training experience. What will happen if a recruit is injured during training? Who will determine if he or she can return to the class? What grades must be maintained to continue in the training program? These and other questions must be addressed in advance by a set of well-developed policies and procedures. Not only does such an approach provide clear expectations to the recruit, but it also ensures that all recruits are treated equitably and potentially protects the fire department or training academy from liability based upon the actions or omissions of instructional staff.

Facilities and equipment

Adequate training facilities and equipment are crucial elements of the recruit training process. Instructors and students should not be expected to simulate basic conditions or to use visual training aids in lieu of functional props. Fire apparatus used to support training should be in good working order and should at least roughly approximate the vehicles that the recruits will encounter once they report for full duty. A training tower for hose evolutions and ropework, as well as an NFPA 1403-compliant live burn structure, will give recruits the chance to develop the skills and techniques that they will need to perform the job of a firefighter. Adequate small tools, hydraulic rescue equipment, and hose and nozzles must be available to allow for the development of basic skills and precision when performing firefighting tasks. Likewise, PPE and breathing apparatus used during training must be in good repair and new enough to provide adequate protection throughout all of the training evolutions the recruit will encounter.

About the Author

Allan Rice

Allan Rice has been the executive director of the Alabama Fire College and Personnel Standards Commission since August 2007. His public safety career spans 27 years, including 15 years of service with the City of Hoover Fire Department. He has previously served as a degree coordinator for fire science and EMS, as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Domestic Preparedness, and as a paramedic and trauma and flight nurse. Rice is the president of the North American Fire Training Directors. He received a paramedic certificate and bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and holds a master’s degree in public and private management from Birmingham-Southern College.

About the Author

Matt Russell

Matt Russell is the training section chief at the Alabama Fire College and Personnel Standards Commission. He served 26 years with Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service and worked his way through the ranks, serving on engine companies, truck companies, rescue units, hazmat and technical rescue companies. Russell served as chief of the Training and Safety Divisions and retired as the assistant chief of Training, Safety and Logistics. He holds an associate’s degree in fire science from Jefferson State Community College and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration from Athens State University. He is a paramedic, has earned more than 20 accredited certifications, and completed the EFO program at the National Fire Academy. Russell also serves as the state coordinator for the Alabama All-Hazards Incident Management Team.

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