Establishing a Continuum of Training

Marc Davidson underscores the need to move past the fire service’s failure to its officers by creating a better approach to training.

Post-promotional training at every level includes an Officer Development Academy for Captain II’s (whose scope of responsibility includes riding up as battalion chiefs).
Post-promotional training at every level includes an Officer Development Academy for Captain II’s (whose scope of responsibility includes riding up as battalion chiefs).

The scope of the problem could not be more clear. To help define it, have a room full of company and chief officers ask themselves the following questions: How much time, effort and resources does my organization put into training our newest members? Is there a significant and sustainable effort that educates the recruit/probie into how we do business in my department and our expectations of them as new firefighters?

In the American fire service, the answer to the latter question is typically “yes.” What that looks like may vary in the specifics—a six-month recruit school at a fire academy, a year-long on-the-job apprenticeship, or weekly and monthly training requirements that must be achieved before the member is cleared as a bucket firefighter. But those processes are in place, they are fairly stringent, and failure means that individual is looking for new employment or a different calling. This represents a common thread of training throughout the fire service, as it should be.

Next, ask that room of company and chief officers to recall their first training in the fire service. Ask them to think about a significant event, a difficult obstacle they had to overcome—anything that defined their ability as a new firefighter. Ask them to raise their hand if they can picture that moment. Almost without fail, you will get everyone in the room to raise their hand.

“I had to climb a 135-foot ladder and was scared of heights”; “We did air-consumption testing while choppin’ on telephone poles until we ran out of air”; “The first time I was in a room full of fire and got to put it out.” This is good. This speaks to a fire service that is invested in producing effective firefighters on the line who will function in situations with limited information, fast timelines and lives in the balance. 

Finally, ask that same group the following: How much time, effort and resources does my organization put into training our newest officers? Is there a significant and sustainable effort that educates the new front-line leader into how we do business in my department and our expectations of them as new officers? Ask them to remember a defining moment in their training to be an officer. Then if you really want to put a fine point on it, ask what they do at each subsequent rank beyond that first promotion, up to and including being the fire chief. 

The answers now turn. There is generally little to no rigorous education or training, there are no “a-ha” moments. This is bad. This speaks to a fire service that is not invested in producing effective fire officers, both company and chief, who will function in situations with limited information, fast timelines and lives in the balance. This is the problem. Like any other problem identified, a solution needs to be provided. 

The RFP

Whenever we go out and purchase apparatus, SCBA or even toilet paper, a request for proposal (RFP) is produced. This defines specifically what we want so that after we write the check and the widget is delivered, we aren’t screaming about what we actually wanted. So, let’s create the RFP for training officers. 

Qualifications 

First, we should establish a template for what the training process should look like. Should we invent one from scratch or use a model from an existing industry? Let’s do what the free market does—take an existing idea, make it smaller, more efficient and sell the hell out of it. 

So then what industry should we pull from? What industry trains highly effective leaders for an environment similar to ours? I suggest the military. Here’s an industry that needs to produce effective leaders at every level, from small unit to the strategic level, with an absolute imperative to succeed with limited information, fast timelines and lives in the balance. I’m not suggesting that we operate on their scale, but proportionally, we can implement some key ideas that have led to their successes. I’m also not suggesting that it is a perfect system. For all the successes, there have been some spectacular failures. But in general, when we look at a “business model” for an industry the fire service holds in high regard (ask any of your members who Jocko, Richard Winter or Hal Moore is) and that has achieved a large measure of success, then this is where we should look. So, here’s our template. Now, what are the specifics?

The existing mandate that “sole-sourcing” officer training and education to a certifying process is inane. Imagine a similar system for firefighters. Go get two pieces of paper (Firefighter I and Firefighter II) from anywhere you can. We’re not concerned about who teaches it, how it’s taught or what is taught because we know it meets the national standard (NFPA 1001) and so it’s good to go.

Bring us your two pieces of paper, and we’ll let you take a test (100 question written because a practical would be difficult and time-consuming), and we’ll assign you directly to your firehouse and put you to work. Dubious. Yet for fire officers, that system is alive and well.

Of grave concern is the fact that the curricula for most Instructor I and Officer I (NFPA 1041 and NFPA 1021) courses of instruction is inadequate at best. Most certifying bodies will simply throughput the publisher’s content, adding very little to the process, with the understanding that some third party in some distant state obviously understands what is needed in your jurisdiction. 

So, the RFP dictates an absolute need to create a certifying process that is robust, stringent and highly relevant to the needs of the department. The key phrase that should apply throughout the RFP is “highly relevant.” If your NFPA 1021 course (at whatever level) relies on writing memos to solve all the problems, does not apply agency-specific solutions, and has no practical application (both in the tactical and personnel realms), then relevancy is incredibly low. And as we know, when we don’t engage our members, they check out really quickly (ever notice the downward glance in the back of a classroom and what appears to be someone erasing an answer—Fruit Ninja!). Do not incur an opportunity cost by requiring the members to take a certifying class and then not ensuring its content is exactly what you need as a foundation for their training and education and for your department. In another analogy, imagine a firefighter class that relied solely on the textbook.

One-up, one-down

Next, the template provided by the military speaks to two key elements—robust pre-promotional training to ensure proficiency before attaining the rank and equally robust post-promotional training to ensure relevancy while in rank. The post-promotional component has the added benefit of tying in with a basic military precept of “one-up, one-down.” This means that the more any member of the chain knows about the rank below and above them, the more relevant their decision-making process becomes as they understand the requirements of the broader organization, not just their slice of the pie.

All training, both before and after promotion, must come with an understanding of the leadership needs in the firehouse as well as the fireground. What does that mean? It means we must acknowledge that an overwhelming amount of any fire officer’s time is spent on the people side of the equation, that soft skills (conflict resolution, communications, leadership) are at a premium and without them, the hard skills (tactical proficiency on the incident scene) are continually undermined. 

It is important to see that 70, 80, 85, 95, 99 percent (pick a number) of the average day involves decision-making that is NOT in extremis and revolves around a skill set that is less Andrew Jackson and more Sheriff Andy Taylor. This is not to suggest that the absolute need for technical competence goes away. But by recognizing that achieving that hard skill is a shorter leap than the soft skill, it starts to inform the need to prioritize both. However, this is not a straight-line equation. If we look at the hard skill that consumes 1, 5, 10 or 15 percent of the day, it has the potential for a wildly disproportionate impact on the citizens we are sworn to protect, our members and our organizations (a kind way of saying poor decision-making on the incident scene leads to civilian and firefighter injury/death).

Constant training

Finally, the training and educational process must be constant. Training for leadership should not begin and end at the rank of your first front-line leaders. In fact, it should start with your rookies. Training your next generation of effective followers should go hand-in-hand with training your next generation of effective leaders. Start teaching basic leadership skills, traits and characteristics to your newest members. This creates a deep foundation to build upon, but just as importantly, it inoculates. When you teach your rookies what effective leadership looks like, it helps them differentiate from dysfunction. You have then given your organization a chance to break the cycle of dysfunction that would fester and have new members leave (the adage that people leave bosses not jobs is alive and well in the fire service), become your next lawsuit, or worse for you, model the behaviors they see.

After this, training and education must follow through at every rank. You cannot assume that being an effective lieutenant means they’ll be effective captains, captains effective battalion chiefs, battalion chiefs effective deputy chiefs and so on. Remember the Peter Principle (Google it) or “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” Leadership, supervision and management skills, traits and characteristics look vastly different for a unit officer compared to bureau chief. In fact, if you’re leading an agency the way you ran your truck company, it’s a fair bet you’re failing. In order to avoid those predictable failures, you need to train.

In a final comparison and turning the analogy on its head, if the U.S. military trained its officer corps the way the fire service trains theirs, they would lose every battle they showed up for. That would mean they would train their second lieutenants occasionally, depending on if the budget allowed, outsource the training to some contractor or possibly not train at all. Then after that, it would be left up to that individual to figure it out. Take some additional classes, maybe require a college degree, learn from their buddies what worked for them—get promoted to captain, major, colonel, and next scene in the movie, they’re generals in charge of armies. Dodgy at best, not what the U.S. taxpayer demands, a recipe for failure. 

The continuum

With your RFP, you’ve designed a comprehensive, cohesive, relevant and, most importantly, sustainable approach to training and educating your future and existing officers. You’ve designed a Continuum of Training, not a career development plan, not a ladder to the top, but a system that builds strength at every level of your organization. 

Your officer corps—whether it’s 3,000, 300 or 3—is one of your most critical assets. No matter what the strategic vision, if at oh-dark, in somewhere America, the officer getting off the rig or showing up in the command buggy, with limited information, fast-moving timelines and an absolute requirement to get it right 100 percent of the time, fails, then the organization fails. Even less dramatic is that officer in the firehouse. No burning building, no screaming people (OK, maybe screaming people), just a group of firefighters relying on that officer to guide, coach, mentor and lead. If you haven’t trained them to the highest level possible, then the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” will apply. You will see members vote with their feet, you will see grievances and civil service cases, and you will see dysfunction. (Ever walk into a firehouse in the middle of the day, with all the apparatus in the bay, and no one to be seen?)

The biggest pushback is the bottom line, and the bottom line is the bottom line. “This will cost me money.” “This will cost me money I don’t have.” “This will cost me.” But what is it costing you now? What is dysfunctional leadership in the firehouse costing your organization? What is tactical incompetence costing the citizens? What happens each time the officers, regardless of rank, in your agency fail? What does that cost look like? It may not show up on your budget, but it is costing you the reputation of your department and the trust of the citizens. 

This Continuum is completely scalable. It should be based on the needs of your community. At the end of the day, it must be viewed as an absolute investment. No different than the shiny new rig, the state-of-the-art SCBA or the latest PPE. If you are not making consistent, sustainable, long-term investments in your officers, then do not be shocked when they fail, be shocked when they get it right.

Final thoughts

America’s fire service needs to change its approach to training and educating its officer corps. It needs to understand that as much as it invests in its newest members, the rookie firefighter, it needs to invest in its newest officers. It needs to understand that “new” applies to each rank, because leadership requirements change and evolve as your scope of responsibility changes and evolves. It needs to understand that the soft skills are as critical as the hard skills. It needs to understand that the return on investment won’t show up on a ledger sheet and it won’t be able to reach out and touch the latest “purchase.” And finally, any discussion where cost rules out the absolute imperative to train and educate our officers should be answered with a simple statement: Doing nothing costs a lot.

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