Drill on the Fly

As a supervisor, how many times have you arrived at quarters with a great drill session in mind, only to have it go out the window for unexpected reasons? When this happens, you must immediately switch to the fire service’s age-old standby: Plan B.

The nature of our business is such that if you don’t have a second option, you’re in serious trouble. Obviously, this is more important on the fireground than during training, but thinking on your feet is a skill that will save lives in any scenario. If you practice it during every aspect of the workday, it will be there when you need it most.

Let’s apply this concept to drills. Every department, career or volunteer, must have a structured, scheduled training program (see “Month by Month,” by Billy Schmidt, August 2007). Teach your members that they should drill as if their lives depend on it-because they do! Training should be a top priority of every fire department.

But what happens when circumstances prevent you from drilling during your regularly scheduled session? If you’re supposed to drill from 1400-1500 hrs and you get three runs during that time, you can justify to your chief why you didn’t drill that day. But what about your obligation to your crew? When the shift ends, your crewmembers should leave with knowledge or information they got from you, that day. In the fire service, knowledge translates directly into safety.

In this article, I’ll share several techniques for teaching members when formal instruction just isn’t possible.


Take the Classroom Outside

Make every effort to use your scheduled drill period to the utmost advantage, but if you lose that time slot, Plan B is to take the classroom outside. By that I mean take advantage of whatever training opportunity presents itself during the shift. This can be done in a variety of very effective ways.

The first step: Get the buy-in of your boss. If your supervisor is aware that you can conduct six 10-minute drills a day, they know you’re taking care of your members even if your allotted training hour was interrupted. But you must keep them informed. For example: “Hey Chief, we’re heading out a little early for hydrant inspection because I want to drill on a building currently under construction at X St. and Y Ave. Would you like to stop by?” (Now he knows you really are drilling!) No chief will turn down a crew’s request to drill. To the chief’s ears, that’s like you hearing one of your kids say, “Daddy, dessert is bad for my teeth. How about if I do my homework instead?”

There are several big advantages to drilling in the field. Although some drills must be performed in a classroom setting, nothing beats a demonstration where members can see your point first-hand. The atmosphere is relaxed, so members are more likely to ask questions and point out their own observations. This will only increase their learning capacity. In addition, such drills are more specific to your type of firefighting because your district has now become your blackboard.


10-Minute Tidbits

“Stop the Rig” is a great educational game. When you’re riding through your area and see something worthwhile, ask the chauffeur to stop the rig and have the junior member get off. Now you can say, “Hey Joe, remember the other day when we were talking about truss construction? Look under the roadway of that bridge overhead. Do you see all the triangles between the top and bottom chords? That’s a truss. This one is made of steel, but in a house, it’s made of wood. It’s very strong, but it burns rapidly and collapses quickly under a fire load.”

Or: “Hey Mary, see that 150-foot-long cinderblock wall under construction? Notice the steel I-beams that support the roof. When the wall is completed, you’ll never see those beams. But if one reaches 900 degrees F, the steel will expand and push the parapet outward. The rest of the length of the parapet will follow like a wave on the beach. You could be 100 feet from where the steel originally pushed out, but you’ll be crushed just as quickly as those directly under the heated beam.”

When you throw out these 5-10-minute tidbits, the rest of the crew will soon be jumping off the rig too. Every member wants to learn, especially if they don’t have to let on that they didn’t know the information previously.

Tip: Direct your comments at the junior members. You’re really teaching the senior guys too, but you’re not showing them up. At the same time, don’t embarrass the probie. Let everyone realize you’re asking a question or pointing out something because the probie’s not expected to know this stuff yet. Turn to a senior member and say, “Liz, you’ve seen this before, right?” Now she can reinforce what you said, even if she’s hearing it for the first time. This is a good motivational tool to get your senior members to stay sharp. They’ll know you want them to participate in the training of the younger members.

Question-and-answer sessions are a much better learning format than a lecture. They give the crew opportunities to tell you what they know and a sense of satisfaction when they answer your questions correctly.


Be Human

Share your experiences, good and bad, with your crew. Don’t be afraid to be a little self-deprecating. There’s a fine line between confident and cocky. If you only tell the stories about when you did a good job, you’ll lose credibility and they’ll be calling you Superman behind your back.

If you tell them about the time you went to exposure 2A for roof access only to realize that exposure 2 was merely a shell with no roof, they’ll learn a lesson at your expense. They will also feel more comfortable with you, because you obviously realize people make mistakes. This is a good time to remind them that mistakes are learning experiences and every firefighter makes them. The difference is that the good firefighters don’t repeat them.


Make ‘Em Laugh

Humor is a great tool. Kitchen camaraderie is the life-blood of the firehouse. One of the common threads is the old-vs.-young battle. (I know all about this one, I’m just on the wrong side!) If one of the youngsters is flapping his gums and asks what it was like when you had to feed the horses, turn it into a drill:

“Hey kid, you’re so new you don’t even know how to walk up a flight of stairs.”

“Boss, what do you mean? I’ve been walking up stairs my whole life.”

“I bet you the price of the meal you can’t do it correctly.”

You know the whole crew will be interested to see how this develops. After the kid flies up and down the stairs without a problem, hit him with the following:

  • “You put your hand on the railing. When the truck took the skylight, the glass took your hand. Your new nickname is Lefty.”
  • “By staying on the railing side instead of the wall side, you fell off the stairs when the stairwell collapsed in lean-to fashion.”
  • “You stepped onto the half-landing. It’s only supported on the four edges by a 1?2″ angle iron. It collapsed under your weight and you fell into the fire.”
  • “You ran up with your feet directly on the treads. You hit a weak step and your foot went straight through, trapping you. Walk on the edge of the tread where it’s supported by the riser.”

“Thanks for lunch, Hot Shot. Let’s have surf-n-turf.”

So you had a good laugh with the members, but everyone learned something. That’s the key.


EMS Runs

EMS runs are great for a quick pre-plan. Ask your crew the following questions:

  • Did you notice the apartment layout? When the front door is open, it blocks off the hallway to four more rooms. If you didn’t check behind the door, you’d think you were in a studio apartment.
  • Where are we going to flake out the hose? Is there room in the public hall? Should we use the stairs to the floor above or the floor below?
  • If we had to force a second door for refuge, which one should it be?

As you walk down from an upper floor, stop halfway and ask the members what floor you’re on. If there were a collapse, how would they report their last known location?


Casual Situations

Catching the crew off-guard can be another effective teaching tool. When you’re at a fire scene, they might be ready for your questions. But what about when you stop for ice cream or someone needs to run to the bank? Get one of the members in a conversation while he has his back to the building. Interrupt the chat and ask how many windows are across the front of the building. Is there a fire escape? What type? Does it extend to the roof? How many stories is the building?

This is a good opportunity for an exposure drill. Ask which building is exposure 2. The crewmember might instinctively turn to their left. But if they’re facing the street, the left is actually exposure 4. Point out that when reporting conditions to the incident commander (IC) from the roof, you should turn your back to the street so you don’t confuse your exposures. Make sure the IC’s exposure 2 and your exposure 2 coincide.

In the station, don’t wait for drill hour to teach a lesson. When a member walks past you carrying a halligan, ask him, “Hey brother, is that how you carry that tool?” When he stares at you blankly, point out that it should be carried 6 inches from the adz and point end, with your hand behind where they meet.

Why? So that if you fall, you won’t spear yourself. And because when you’re falling, instinct tells you to toss whatever is in your hands so you can use them to break your fall. But if you hold a halligan as described above, you can slam it into an icy roof to keep from sliding off the rear. You also don’t have to worry about breaking your knuckles, because the adz and point will keep them from making contact.


Drill It Home

If you drill using these techniques, your members will enjoy the challenge and will feel like a million bucks when they have the answers to your questions. The most important thing is that they are learning something. Remember: This type of drilling augments, not replaces, your regularly scheduled drills.

There’s an old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you teach your crew to think and observe, they’ll continue to learn long after you’ve retired.

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