Facts vs. Opinions: Creating Realistic Firefighter Training

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How do you know your fire personnel are being adequately trained? If you’re not managing your training program aggressively, it might take an adverse incident to discover your department’s training is missing the mark. When something goes wrong, it may reveal a training issue or deficiency resulting in you taking action—after the fact.

Today’s fire service presents myriad situations that often need quick, if not instantaneous, decisions. Unfortunately, these split-second reactions can have devastating results if personnel are not adequately trained in advance.

When you think about your firefighter training ask yourself: Is it relevant to your agency’s mission today? Is it based on realistic firefighter training tactics and strategies? Is it rooted in the “facts and stats” specific to your department?

It can be tough to keep training fresh and engaging. So, when developing training topics for your department, avoid the ruts that often accompany training calendars. If you’ve been using the same calendar for a year (or possibly years), your department’s training is probably uninteresting for both your personnel and trainers. Plus, you’re inviting problems including lack of policy compliance and skill gaps as technology advances.

Your training calendar should reflect your specific department’s needs and potential needs. Start by looking at what is happening within your department and your community.

When you think about your firefighter training, is it realistic? Is it relevant to your agency’s mission today? Is it rooted in the “facts and stats” specific to your department?

First, review your department’s call volume statistics. What call types are most frequent for your firefighters? Conduct a review of the previous year’s emergency responses and identify the top 10 types of calls you received. Then, make sure your training is addressing those types of calls—frequently.

Additionally, think about what types of major incidents your agency could face. Maybe it’s flash flooding, tornadoes, a major fire in the wildland/urban interface or someone trapped in a structure fire. During some major incidents, you have discretionary time, allowing you to develop property and safety plans in advance. But often, major incidents don’t allow us time to think—like when someone is swept away in flood waters or trapped on the second floor of a residential structure fire. These non-discretionary time incidents require immediate action and don’t give you time to think through a response in advance.

When you get a non-discretionary time incident that is also high-risk in nature and it’s a type of event your department doesn’t experience frequently, you’re in a dangerous space where training up front is imperative. In fact, risk management expert Gordon Graham regularly speaks about the need to develop good policy and then train your personnel on how to respond to these high-risk/low-frequency events with non-discretionary time.

Next, take the pulse of your department. Are your firefighters asking for additional training in specific areas? And are the training methods (in-house, online, hands-on) working for your personnel? A needs assessment helps reveal what your firefighters are interested in and whether your training methods are effective in practice (and not just on paper).

You can also arrange for a skills assessment. It’s probable that your instructors know where firefighters excel or struggle, but it never hurts to check. Conducting a skills assessment is an objective measure of what skills firefighters have mastered, and which ones might need some additional training.

Finally, don’t let training get boring. Alter your training topics and methods regularly to keep members engaged in training. If you’re looking for ideas, attend conferences or read the conference programs (ISFSI, Fire-Rescue International, FDIC, Firehouse Expo), read trade magazine articles (Firehouse Magazine, Fire Engineering, FireRescue1.com), attend free trade webinars and look to neighboring departments. It never hurts to know how other similarly situated departments are tackling new problems.

A realistic firefighter training program is the most practical (and easiest) way for your organization to achieve excellence. Plus, when training takes a backseat, both the department and its personnel suffer. So, make every day a training day.

Where is your training falling short? Take some time to evaluate your training program today. Use our new white paper, Warning Lights: 6 Signs Your Fire Department Training Program is Falling Short as a guide to start your conversation.

Bruce Bjorge

BRUCE BJORGE is a senior account executive for Lexipol. He has more than 34 years of fire service experience, including command and training positions with career, combination, volunteer and military fire agencies. Previously, Bruce served as the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) Specialist for the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute, managing the Mobile ARFF and other live-fire training programs, and as the Assistant Chief of Training for the Western Taney County Fire Protection District in Branson, Mo. He holds Training Officer and 1403 Live Fire Fixed Facility Instructor credentials from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Training Program Management course. Bruce has been an active instructor and evaluator for the past 28 years and is a regular presenter at state, regional, and national conferences and training events.

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