Training: Pathway to Excellence For Small Fire Departments

Aug. 1, 2003
Steve Meyer shows that a fire department with a reputation for professionalism at incidents is sure to have a strong training program as one of its attributes.
A small fire department with a good reputation for professionalism at incidents is sure to have a strong training program as one of its attributes. Training as a means to proficiency sounds easy. Sit new firefighters in a classroom, then give them some hands-on experience and you've got firefighters capable of tackling anything.

Those who have walked under the helmet of a training officer in a small fire department know it's not that simple. The training budget in a small fire department usually amounts to only a few hundred dollars. On drill night, the firefighters who most need the training find all kinds of other things to do and besides, "We don't have that many fires anyway."

The last statement, rather than justifying a disregard for training, cuts to the core of why training is a most important function in any small fire department. For the most part, small fire departments do not respond to alarms frequently enough to gain or maintain skill levels from alarms alone. Add legal and liability concerns associated with poorly trained firefighters, plus consider how pride and motivation from doing a good job influences the small fire department's mission, and it becomes obvious why training is a big priority.

Training challenges in small fire departments center on time, leadership and desire.

"Training is a real challenge in small fire departments. They must balance training time with time spent at meetings, equipment maintenance, fundraising and answering alarms," notes Training Specialist Chuck Burkell of the National Fire Academy.

This will not be an article about instructional techniques or that outlines a training program for small fire departments. Rather, this article will focus on key issues influencing training in small fire departments and will provide ideas for coping with the training challenge.

The key issues are:

  1. Leadership is committed to training.
  2. Department members spearhead training.
  3. Firefighters are motivated to train.
  4. The department makes use of available training resources.
  5. Firefighters receive training that caters to their needs.


This is a point that doesn't need belaboring. Essentially, without support from the top, a small fire department's training program is at best stymied and most likely doomed to failure. It's a simple formula. If the chief wants firefighters to train, then he or she had better participate in training. That doesn't mean the chief has to sit through recruit training over and over, but it does mean that in order to set an example the chief must regularly attend training that assists in the performance of the job. There is also no excuse for a chief not participating in department drills and at least stopping in during a rookie training class occasionally to show interest and give a healthy dose of support.

Ultimately, many of the challenges and problems a small fire department encounters can be resolved through training. A concerted top-down emphasis on training not only helps a department's members gain knowledge and skills, it also gets members circulating among firefighting brethren. The interaction and networks developed with other firefighters are key components of problem solving.

The ultimate responsibility for safety rests on the shoulders of a small fire department's leadership. The best assurance fire department leadership can have of a finely tuned, safety-conscious firefighting force is training.

The chief can also cultivate opportunities for small fire department members to excel as training officers. Any effort expended toward developing training officer skills and abilities will return itself many times over in the small fire department.

It is up to the small fire department's leadership to see to it that the ideal of prioritizing training permeates the department from top to bottom. How leadership is able to finesse such an attitude toward training is a function of leadership style and the environment the chief operates in.


It's unfortunate, but an often-held outlook that cripples viewpoints of the training officer position is that it is an unglamorous and thankless position.

Given the vast implications inherent to training in the small fire department the training officer's position is immensely underrated. Ask any veteran firefighters who most influenced them in their firefighting vocation and invariably they will mention a training officer or two. Many who become involved in small fire departments as training officers end up as chiefs. The training world is always on the cutting edge of new things influencing the fire service and serves as a conduit for progressive, forward-thinking individuals in the fire service. Additionally, those who commit themselves to training find it quite rewarding. Seeing a volunteer firefighter progress from an all-thumbs plebe to a knowledgeable and experienced firefighter and knowing you had something to do with that transition carries a special kind of satisfaction.

"I encourage every fire department to seek out an experienced cadre of instructors," says Chief Ed Kirtley of the Diamond, OK, Fire Department. "Every department needs two or three members to become certified instructors who can get some experience and then go after training programs to bring back to the department."

Kirtley's statement carries a lot of credence. For the small fire department with volunteers on a variety of schedules and myriad obligations, training needs to be accessible, flexible and accommodating. What this means is the training program shouldn't be the burden of just one individual. One person may be in charge, but having two or three people involved increases the cadre of skills, abilities and the availability of training opportunities.

Every small fire department also faces the challenge of having a body of firefighters who are at levels 2 through 9 on a scale of 10 in skills and capabilities; then you've got the new recruit you're trying to get past level 1. In a larger department it's easier to separate firefighters by skills and job classification and then cater training specifically to their needs. The training officer of a small fire department, however, deals with firefighters spread across the full spectrum of skills and knowledge and a spectrum just as wide of attitudes and motivation to train. Again, having more than one person involved in training helps the small fire department contend with the challenges inherent to the diverse group of individuals who make up the department and the broad variety of services they must perform.

The bottom line is that in order to focus the attention on training that is deserved in a small fire department, a concerted effort must be made to find those firefighters in the ranks who have an interest in training and supplying them with all of the support and resources they need to get the job done.

"To make training as effective as it needs to be you need to establish a defined group of people who will be taking care of the training rather than just showing up on drill night and making assignments," says Ex-Chief Don Wood of the Radnor Fire Company in Wayne, PA. Wood instructs at a variety of levels, including as a contract instructor with the National Fire Academy. He was chief of the Radnor Fire Company for 12 years.

Some small fire departments are fortunate to have top-notch instructional talent on the roster. If you're department seems to have a void of instructional talent, don't let that be an inhibitor. Even instructors who don't have the most polished instructional technique can succeed in getting the message across. Some co-instructing with other, more seasoned instructors will help them get off to a good start.

Instructing is such a solitary endeavor. Many shrink at the proposition of teaching. It is also not uncommon for new instructors to become quickly discouraged. Wood says that a brief survival skills class is essential for new or wanna-be instructors. Wood contends such a class needs to focus on giving the fledgling instructors knowledge about such topics as how to handle classroom problems such as difficult students. "So often, we say to a newly promoted officer, 'You're a lieutenant now, you ought to be able to train.' This just isn't true," says Wood.


People join a small fire department for a variety of reasons, but the underlying motivation is self-gratification, feeling good about themselves and the job they do. Training is the means to achieving the kind of self-gratification people seek. So if training is the key to excellence and the boost in self-esteem that people seek when they join a small fire department, the training needs to be good if they're going to be motivated to train.

"I don't care if you're a volunteer fire department from a community of 200 or 200,000, good motivational training that is engaging and keeps people coming back to the table is vital," Kirtley says. "When training becomes routine and boring fire departments loose their focus on the value of training. When people quit coming it becomes a de-motivator for the rest of the department."

Development of, and/or delivery of, training that fixes the desired training objectives inside a firefighter's head becomes the task for small fire departments. There is no magical formula. The way a small fire department arrives at the desired means of all of its members actively participating in training is varied. One element that is essential has to do with the instructors themselves and the amount of enthusiasm they put into the task. Enthusiasm is a force multiplier.

Another prime motivator for training is safety. "My first observation of firefighter death is that if not by heart attack, then by screw up. My corollary to the first maxim is that people screw up mostly due to lack of, or poor, training," observes George Oster, past executive officer of the Iowa Fire Service Institute.

Firefighting equipment that is compliant with all the standards is one component of firefighter safety, but in the hands of an inexperienced or untrained firefighter even the best equipment can be deadly. The only way to assure safe operation in any aspect of fire department operations is training and education. Having firefighters who understand the consequence of a negligent regard for training is a motivational force in itself.

"I think one of the most essential components to keeping people in small fire departments motivated is live-fire training," Kirtley says. "It keeps their confidence level up, particularly when they're only getting one or two structural fires a year."

Indeed, live-fire training cannot be underscored in its importance as a training tool for small fire departments. A good house burn impacts skill levels more readily than a year's worth of monthly drills or a 24-hour class in the basics of firefighting. Unfortunately, environmental regulations have put a damper on live-fire training and continue to make it more difficult for fire departments to have such training exercises.

Clarence E. "Smiley" White, program analyst with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and a field instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), agrees that live-fire training is important. White further notes that a live-fire training exercise is not something a fire department should keep all to itself.

"Training with several departments together is important. The composite of knowledge can create a very fine training experience," says White, who has been a member of three volunteer fire companies.

With the future of firefighting pointing in the direction of more joint responses and joint efforts among fire departments, the necessity of neighboring fire departments training together becomes all the more important.


Training opportunities await every fire department no matter how small or impoverished it may be. The opportunity is right under the small fire department's nose or just down the road and the good news is most of it is free.

State agencies have training programs, some of which are available for free. The state point of contact (fire marshal, state fire training system, etc,) can be found on the National Fire Academy's web site by going to:

The fire service is also great about sharing. A training officer from a neighboring fire department is often more than willing to travel to the department next door to help with training. This also serves as a motivational tool for getting firefighters to train. It's part of human nature, but an instructor from 50 miles down the road with a laptop computer and PowerPoint presentation qualifies as an expert in many firefighters' minds and tends to draw a crowd.

All jokes aside, PowerPoint is a widely available training tool. The benefits of a slide program as a teaching aid are immense. PowerPoint is easily mastered and the LCD player needed to project the image onto a screen can often be borrowed or rented for a nominal fee. A small fire department training officer can use PowerPoint to enhance presentations and training programs while at the same time developing a training program that caters to a department's specific needs.

The Internet is full of training resources. Do a search and you'll come up with a plethora of lesson plans and contacts. The website publishes MFRI's "Drill of the Month" program.

Assigning a mentor is a training technique and a good approach to use with new members. A unique quality about firefighters is their willingness to share and pass on their knowledge to others. You don't find that quality in corporate America where the edge in job competition means you don't share your knowledge. In the fire service it's different because your life depends on the person next to you when you're facing an inferno and you need the assurance of knowing your comrade won't bail out on you.


Time is precious to volunteer firefighters, making it all the more important that training time is maximized.

"Many volunteer fire department's have their training program based upon the individual's ability to attend," says Chief John Buckman of the German Township, IN, Fire Department and a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). "I believe the right training program based upon performance is more important than attendance. Asking a firefighter who is paid to sit through a four-hour class may be a waste of their time depending on the subject, material and instructor. Asking a volunteer to sit through a four-hour class that really only needs one hour, but there is some organization that has arbitrarily set rules for a four-hour class, in my opinion is a tragic waste of a finite resource - TIME. Volunteers should not waste their time in training that does not produce the desired results for the department where they practice our craft."

Many volunteers are leaving the ranks due to time constraints. Often, those constraints have to do with training requirements. Three decades ago, training basically consisted of water application, pump operations, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and rescue techniques. Officer training was beginning to make a presence in training curriculums. Two decades ago, all the "methyl ethyl bad stuff" that had been killing firefighters for years started to influence training. Lawyers who chase ambulances and sue fire departments for negligence and bad driving brought about a concerted focus on driver training and medical training. Add into the mix diseases now recognized as threats to firefighter health and safety and we've got blood-borne pathogen training. Now, after 9/11, we have terrorism-related training.

In brief, the bar has been raised substantially as far as the training a small-town firefighter needs. Training to meet the requirements requires a lot of time from the small fire department member and also a broader base of knowledge as far as instructors are concerned (another reason every fire department needs a cadre of training officers, not just a training officer).

"Any training developed must be relevant to the community," White says. "You must train to meet the needs of the department," an observation shared by many others. There is no need to train extensively in fire suppression systems when there isn't a sprinkler head or fire department connection in the fire district. Likewise, there is no need to spend hours training in high-angle rescue when the tallest building is two stories and the fire district lies on land so flat you can see clear across the county.

Simply stated, members of a small fire department must see an application of what they are being taught to their duties. If they do not, attendance at training will be scant at best.

As stated by Randy Novak, bureau chief of the Iowa Fire Marshal's Office Fire Training Bureau: "All fire departments (including small volunteer fire departments) need to focus their training efforts based on the level of service they provide. Today, the fire service is not responding to enough working fires to remain proficient in the skills of fire suppression. This means we need to train (practice) on our basic fire suppression skills. As a fire department increases its level of service to the community, they must train on those new skills, and maintain their existing skill level."

While your more experienced members may not realize it, they need refresher training to maintain knowledge and skills as well as to bring them up to date on new information and technology. That challenges a small fire department to make the mundane repeated skills interesting enough to hold attention. Some creativity and forethought are required to accomplish that mission, not just showing up on drill night and having everyone go through the same evolution they've done for the past five, 10, 20 or more years. Be careful not to let refresher training dominate the department's training program. Firefighters need exposure to new knowledge, tactics and technology if the department is to grow and members are to receive the challenges they seek. Stagnation is never a good thing.

Finding the right balance between hands-on and classroom training is important. Firefighters don't like sitting inside a classroom when there's beautiful weather outside and there are hands-on activities they can be doing. Putting rookie firefighters through bloodborne pathogen training on a day suitable for forcible entry and water application training is never a pleasant experience for student or instructor.

New firefighters need tactical training soon so they at least have an idea of what is happening on the fireground. More tactical training can be blended in with other training as the firefighters progress.

Determining a small fire department's training needs is not that difficult. "A good method to use in determining the department's training needs may be to conduct a scene analysis of past incidents or operational problems with an emphasis on addressing deficiencies or improving efficiency," observes White. "You should not allow your department to become complacent. There is always room for improvement."

Another means of determining training needs is to conduct a periodic skills evaluation that determines the proficiency level of each member. Training guidance for small fire departments is often founded by requirements in the department's constitution and bylaws that mandate accomplishment of certain levels of training as well as annual refresher training. Though there is a tendency to resist such regulations in small fire departments, they serve as benchmarks to track progress toward meeting training goals and in keeping a fire department's training program on track.

Aside from department training requirements, there may be legal basis for some training in certain jurisdictions such as the provisions of 29 CFR 1910.120q, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation related to emergency response to hazardous materials incidents. The basis for training requirements may also be found in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards such as the NFPA 1000 standards, NFPA 1500 Fire Department Occupational Health and Safety Standard and the NFPA 472 Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents.

Many volunteer fire and rescue department training officers have difficulty developing and implementing a training program. The challenges of developing a training program that works can be overcome if five principles are kept in mind, White says:

  1. Identify who the training audience is and what their needs are.
  2. Establish how frequently training sessions should be scheduled.
  3. Determine what the training program should look like.
  4. Determine the most appropriate means of delivering the training.
  5. Determine how results of the training program can be evaluated.

Yes, even the smallest fire department must evaluate training. If a means of determining whether a learning or skills objective has been achieved is not established, how will department leaders know if it is progressing on the path to excellence?

Wood explains an effective instructional technique for small fire departments: "Typically, when you have a training session in a small fire department, you have a group of up to 25 firefighters with just a few that are doing everything. Breaking the big group into small groups creates an environment that demands more attention from all of the firefighters. This also gives the opportunity to focus attention on specific training needs with newer members and the more experienced."

Leon Flemming, a MFRI instructor from Carroll County, MD, explains an approach to training that has helped small fire departments in his area: "Members of some departments in my area are getting together an hour before their meetings and having roundtable discussions about training issues, things like when they should have training and what they need."

Such an approach not only helps identify training problems and deficiencies, it also gives ownership by allowing all members to have input in the solution. Having a sense of ownership is a big motivator.

Training has implications beyond impacting knowledge and skill levels in advancing a department's quest for excellence as noted by Buckman: "Training in a volunteer fire department is one of the most significant issues that impacts the recruitment and retention of volunteers."

At first look, it may not be easy to see a connection between training and recruitment and retention. If training leads to professionalism, and professionalism leads to a good public image and a good public image helps boost recruitment and retention efforts, then training is indeed a foundation for recruitment and retention efforts.

A discussion about anything mandatory is certain to polarize volunteer firefighters and raise a variety of issues, along with tempers. Many small volunteer fire departments have mandatory training requirements, even a few states do. Though a change to mandatory training is certain to cause upheaval in a small fire department, once the threshold is crossed and some time has passed it becomes the accepted norm, much as it has with emergency medical services and law enforcement. No one in any echelon of those services ever questions the role of mandatory training.

As to training philosophy, consider George Oster's views:

  1. My first observation of firefighter death: If not by heart attack, then by screw up.
  2. Corollary to first maxim: People screw up mostly due to lack of, or poor, training.
  3. My first rule of training: Do it.
  4. Corollary to first rule of training: demonstrate you do it (this means certification).
  5. My second rule of training: Really put someone in charge of it (not a training officer with 50 other responsibilities).
  6. My corollary to the second rule of training: Every future chief ought to be in charge of training. (Who better to set the future tone of the department? How better to mold the department and how better to get known?)
  7. Third rule of training: Training starts with "values." (You need to teach the values of the department).
  8. Best training is done in context - i.e., as part of a complete evolution.
  9. Training must be repetitive (people forget a lot).
  10. When deciding what training is to be done - need to look at what is done by the department - too much time is wasted on unlikely events in the small department.
  11. Since in 10 years 90% of all small departments will depend on automatic mutual aid or tiered response, they need to train together.
  12. Training needs to be mandatory (if people quit over this, you didn't want them anyway).
  13. Training must focus on safety.

As to a small fire department not having capable training talent on its roster, there is no such department. Even the smallest, most remote fire department has personnel who can get up in front of people and speak. Combine that ability with the right training and resources and you have the start of an effective training program. As for technique, effective instruction varies among departments and instructors and an instructor does not need to worry that a presentation is not the most polished. As Keith Royer, one of the 20th century's best fire instructors implied, how someone teaches is not as important as the results achieved.

As a closing remark, this article serves as an appeal to anyone considering a move into the dynamic world of fire department training - don't hesitate. The demand for your service is great and the rewards to those who diligently apply themselves to the task are even greater.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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