By Stephen Marsar
Published Wednesday, August 29, 2012
| From the October 2012 Issue of FireRescue
For a moment, think of firefighter training and years of service on opposite ends of a scale. The scale balances time in the company (or department) on one side and eagerness to train on the other. Generally speaking, members with less than three years on the department tip the scale heavily toward the eager-to-train side, while members in the middle of their careers often begin to level off and go the other way, with less emphasis on training.
Interestingly, senior members tend to tip the scale back toward training, because they recognize their responsibility toward both the younger members and the company. Senior members have had their skills and knowledge challenged, and as a result, they’ve been enlightened by their experiences and humbled by our profession. Perhaps more important, the senior members have also (usually) acquired the ability to “roll with the punches” because they’ve “been there and done that.”
Knowing where your firefighters are during an incident is essential to being a smart, safe and effective officer. Knowing where they are in the training/learning cycle is not as easy, but can be just as important.
We all know the new firefighter who’s like a sponge: They read every piece of fire department literature they can get their hands on, they’re eager and anxious to learn, and they take something away from every training session. Hence, their “scale” leans heavily toward the training side.
The “know-it-all” and “not-so-eager beaver” personalities, on the other hand, present true challenges to the company or training officer. They tend to lean heavier on the time-on-the-department side of the scale and may be difficult to reach.
Although you may look at them as an obstacle, they can turn out to be your greatest asset.
The know-it-all is usually the firefighter with a few years under their belt (generally 5 to 7) who’s starting to feel confident in their abilities and knowledge. They’re not afraid to show that they do indeed know a thing or two, but their cockiness can actually be helpful: They can be an officer’s ally when it comes to organizing and conducting drills; you can also call on them to answer questions or to make important points throughout the session. Tip: Invite them to share their knowledge, but be careful not to let them monopolize valuable training time or get into stories that deviate from the drill topic. Keep them focused on the objectives.
I recall one training session where I was giving an impromptu drill. My crew included a probationary firefighter and a firefighter in her second year. The topic was positional duties for ladder company roof operations, and the young firefighters were eating it up. Standing in front of the firehouse and looking at the tenements across the street, we discussed roof access, tool assignments, the order of priorities once you get to the roof and what to do when primary roof operations are completed. I then turned to my resident know-it-all and asked if he had anything to add. He posed a question to the group: “What’s a fast and easy way to figure out the number of stories in a building?” Being a relatively new lieutenant at the time and new to the area, I too was curious about the answer. Plus, I always felt stressed during size-up when having to stop and count the number of stories using the windows on each floor—a chore that seemed to take forever—at a working fire.
After a few incorrect guesses from the group, the know-it-all proudly stated that if the building in question has a front fire escape, then “simply count the number of stairs (or staircases) between fire escape balconies and add two (one for the ground floor and one for the top floor) and voila, you know the number of stories in the building!” I thought this was an ingenious insight. The know-it-all most definitely added to the drill and taught everyone a valuable lesson, including me.
The Not-So-Eager Beaver
This personality is more difficult to categorize because this type of individual can be found at all levels of experience. The danger of this individual is that they may be at an early stage in their firefighting career and may need a kick in the butt to get motivated.
It’s easy to let this particular member slip through the cracks at drill time so that you don’t have to deal with them; however, you owe it to them and the rest of the crew to include all members and experience levels in every drill. The key to motivating these individuals lies in conducting hands-on drills where skills take precedence over book-perfect knowledge.
During a recent drill on hoseline basics, the nozzle firefighter (who was, by nature, a lazy loudmouth who hides his firefighting inadequacies behind a tough-guy façade) heard the drill topic and promptly dismissed himself, letting the officer know (in no uncertain terms) that the drill was a waste of his time. The lieutenant told him to go sit in the radio/ready room so he wouldn’t interrupt the drill. Not three hours had passed when the company responded first-due to an apartment fire. The noisy nozzleman failed to sweep the floor prior to advancing into the kitchen fire area. As a result, he received second- and third-degree burns on both knees from the hot tile floor and the water, and required treatment at the burn center. The back-up firefighter—who had a little more than 11 months on the company (and who listened at the earlier drill)—duck-walked into the same fire area, on the same tile floor, took over the nozzle, swept the floor and completed the final extinguishment of the fire after the not-so-eager beaver bailed out. The lieutenant made the mistake of not including the nozzleman in the drill and let their insubordinate actions lead the way to their own burn injuries.
It Takes Imagination & Ingenuity
Most formal educational literature refers to the psychological profiles of the above individuals, and offers suggestions on how to deal with them in an educational or business setting. However, in the fire service, there may not be as much of a need to analyze and categorize such individual firefighter personalities as there is to simply recognize who they are and figure out how to get through to them.
If you’ve ever studied teaching methodology or methods of instruction, they treat these two personalities as individuals. They’ll give you a check-off sheet of tricks to deal with each of them, and that’s OK—but what do you do when both of these individuals show up for a drill or are working the same shift?
That’s where imagination and ingenuity come in. As officers, we may not always come up with the best drill ever. Heck, even Babe Ruth didn’t hit a homerun every time he got up to bat. In fact, he struck out 1,330 times in his 22-year career. And sometimes, there just isn’t enough time, energy or props to go around.
Although it can be easy to just skip the drill when we don’t have something in our back pocket, this leads to complacency. Complacency can lead to, and has led to, firefighter deaths and injuries. And remember that training doesn’t have to take a long time: A good, 45-minute hands-on drill is probably much more beneficial and enjoyable than a three-hour expert dissertation on fire behavior.
Recognizing different personalities and how they learn, along with the above suggestions on how to deal with them, may help you to strike a balance on the scales of learning.
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