Error Management Starts During Training

Recently I observed a department that was training on their first-alarm incident command. The training session took place at a two-story building, and all responding companies were assigned their respective duties. During this training, two firefighters were tasked with opening the roof. The extension ladder was raised and one firefighter held the ladder while the second firefighter started up with the roof ladder. And the roof ladder was kicking the second firefighter’s butt. The ladder would tip one way or the other and the firefighter struggled for control. Finally, the first firefighter told the second firefighter to set the roof ladder down and pick it up using a higher rung so that the ladder was better balanced. Problem solved.

Or was it? Because this session was focused on the Incident Command System (ICS), the instructors observing the session failed to observe the unexpected challenge the firefighter had with the roof ladder, and an opportunity for training was missed.

It’s a challenge to conduct good training: The incident commander (IC) portion of this training was superb and, to be fair, the difficulty with the ladder was not anticipated as the firefighter was previously taught the task and demonstrated proficiency. But that’s how it goes on the fireground. It’s not uncommon for training officers to miss issues like this when focused on other tasks—it’s easy to lose sight of the overall picture. With major staff reductions, it’s not easy to manage this problem; but due regard for the safety of our firefighters requires that it IS managed. Not everything can be anticipated, and so we must pay attention while training so that, if unexpected events occur, we can observe and learn from them.

One method that could have been used in this is to have “table-topped” the ICS training. With this strategy, the IC makes the assignments, and the companies report back (via radio from another room) that their assignment is, or is not, complete at the appropriate time. Then those who attend the ICS training can discuss the outcome. But even this strategy has trade-offs: How can those who are not involved in the ICS training learn from it? The simple answer is that the information is shared in a later debrief.

One person cannot conduct a multi-company, hands-on training session and pay attention to all the things that could go wrong in an instant. Departments must ensure that an adequate number of personnel have been assigned to observe and coach on all aspects of a training scenario. Though this might be difficult due to budget cuts, it is imperative that enough personnel are involved in training sessions that we can all learn as much as possible.

Unquestionably, this firefighter will not forget the lesson he learned that day about the roof ladder. But that was done in a relatively controlled environment, in broad daylight, without the rush of a fire attack. Now, change it to a dark, rainy night, extension ladder placed in the mud, and heavy fire and smoke conditions … What might happen then?