Policy Training for Volunteer Firefighters

Firefighter training is part of what drives organizational excellence in today’s fire service. Organizations with active, relevant training programs can prepare their members for emergency situations, enhance safety, and reduce individual firefighter and agency risk.

Most fire agencies today conduct training for their members. However, training is usually focused on department operations at emergency scenes. And why shouldn’t it be? This kind of training prepares us to carry out the tasks we all signed on to do—and the training itself can be interesting and engaging.

But what other topics could the training program address better? Specifically, is your department training on your agency’s policies? I know, the mention of policies is immediately followed by eyerolls and sighs. Few firefighters see value in such an exercise, especially during face-to-face training. Yet fire chiefs, command staff and other administrators know that firefighters find themselves in trouble due to predictable actions that have negative outcomes. Many of these incidents could likely be lessened or prevented altogether through an active policy training program.

Career fire organizations have one clear advantage when implementing a policy training program. Members of the organization report for duty and are a captive audience for training during the shift. Volunteer fire organizations do not have this luxury. They face ever-increasing pressure to train their members on more and more topics within the narrow time constraints volunteers can give to their departments.

So what do you do? You know you need to train your volunteer staff on practical skills, safety and operations, and now you must include policy training with very limited available time. Sound impossible? Not really. Here are a few suggestions on how the training officer of a volunteer fire organization can do it.

Make It a Priority
First, you need to make policy training a priority. This is a short suggestion because it’s really quite simple: Successfully training your members on your department’s policies starts with a commitment to include and deliver policy training as part of your overall training program.

Use Technology
Second, evaluate different technology options to help you accomplish the task. Several companies specialize in providing training platforms and programs. A comprehensive service will deliver your training content online and via a mobile device app, which provides the benefit of being able to access important training from virtually anywhere. This is a vital consideration for volunteer departments because it allows members to access and complete their assigned training while on break at their full-time job, at home or whenever they have a few minutes available. Most importantly, conducting policy training in this manner does not take time away from other important training topics that require face-to-face or hands-on training evolutions.

If you do not have the financial resources to use a company that can provide policy training for you, there is the to do-it-yourself option. Platforms such as Moodle, Google Classroom and others allow motivated, tech-savvy individuals to build online training programs. This option requires someone willing and able to learn how to work with the platform, build curriculum and master the delivery method of the content within the system.

Using technology to provide policy training and making it as accessible as possible is vital.

Focus Your Training
Third, policy training should cover all your department’s policies (over time) but focus more deeply on important safety and risk topics.

Gordon Graham, a nationally recognized speaker on public safety risk management and co-founder of Lexipol, regularly discusses risk/frequency analysis and the need to focus on high-risk, low-frequency events. These are incidents that have very serious consequences although they occur very infrequently.

Gordon also talks about how public safety professionals need to adopt the attitude, “Every day is a training day.” Volunteer firefighters are accustomed to thinking of training in terms of sessions that occur monthly or a few times a month. But it’s possible to design a training program that delivers short, anywhere-accessible training “moments” to support learning in between in-person training sessions. Such training need only take a few minutes per day.

What policy topics present the greatest training needs? Issues of firefighter misconduct, such as inappropriate posting on social media or sexual harassment, are often addressed in agency policy. The one missing piece is regularly training members on the policies. How often do you see headlines about social media or harassment scandals engulfing fire departments?

Other topics to consider include apparatus operations, rapid intervention and active-shooter incidents. (Does your department even have an active-shooter policy? It should.) When was the last time your members reviewed your policy on use of department-owned technology or other equipment? Solicitation of funds? Swiftwater rescue? All these areas create potential trouble for firefighters. Training on these policies informs and reminds each member of the agency’s expectations and standards.

A Foundation for Success
Policy training is vital to the success of any public safety organization. The fire service is unique, however, because 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. fire service is staffed by volunteer members. These members are consistently being asked to do more in all areas of their lives. Training requirements continue to increase even as their available time to volunteer diminishes. Volunteer fire administrators must deliver policy training in a way that supports the members and accomplishes the task quickly and efficiently. Using technology to provide policy training and making it as accessible as possible—whenever and wherever the volunteer firefighter has time—is vital.

Every fire agency uses training to reduce risk and enhance the safety of their members. Policy training supports these goals. It can also positively impact service delivery to the community because members will be better familiar with response policies and procedures, which in turn increases performance and proficiency.

Developing and implementing policy training within your overall training program will positively impact your overall organization and can be done so in a manner that will meet your organization’s needs and budget.

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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