Fire Department Training: Changing the Culture

Surround yourself with like-minded individuals who will support the change. (Photos by author.)

By Kevin Whitaker

How many times have you complained either out loud or under your breath about your fire department’s training program or lack thereof? How many times have you thought, “Somebody needs to update our fire training”? Well, that somebody could be you. This article identifies ways to help you improve your fire department’s training culture. From the rookie firefighter to the company officer, you can use these ideas to start the process of change within your fire department. Change is never easy and often moves at a snail’s pace but progress, no matter how small, is what you should be looking toward.

One of the most important lessons I have learned during my career is that change starts with you. If you are going to wait for someone to listen to your complaints and then develop a plan to fix the problems you are identifying, you will be waiting a long time. One of the first firefighter leadership classes I ever took was with Chief (Ret.) Rick Lasky of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. He hit on something that really stuck with me and changed the way I viewed my fire department and the fire service. It was a play on a famous John F. Kennedy quote, “Ask not what your fire department can do for you but what can you do for your fire department.” That was a mind bomb for me. I had realized that I was becoming one of those people who would do nothing but complain about my department and never do anything to try and make it better. That is what started me on the journey I am on today.

One of the most important things that you can do is increase your knowledge base. Take classes. Lecture classes, hands-on training classes, college-level courses–anything that is going to increase your understanding of the fire service is a good thing. Take classes from those outside your department, see how other people operate, gain new ideas, and network. Chances are other firefighters from other areas are going through the same struggles you are. Taking classes with and from those outside your department is one of the best ways to discover new ideas to solve the problems you are facing.

Training can be performed anywhere anytime. (Photo by author.)

When I started on my journey to change the culture of my department, I did not do it alone. Search out like-minded individuals who have a real interest in improving the training of your department. Look for those attending training classes or look for an organization of firefighters like the Fraternal Order Of Leatherheads Society (F.O.O.L.S.). I am a member of the Treasure Coast F.O.O.L.S. and between the members of my own chapter and hundreds of other brothers and sisters around the globe, the resources are endless.

As I have said before, change starts with you. At one point in my career, I was assigned to a station with a slow to medium call volume, an average of six calls a shift. I came from a station that would run a minimum of 15 to 20 calls in a 24-hour period, so I was bored a lot of the time at my new station. There were senior members assigned to the station who I believe had little to no interest in training. Being a newer firefighter with five years on, I fell into a rut and became a product of my environment. Sitting in the recliners, taking a nap before lunch, then another after lunch, and listening to the others argue about what to watch on TV pretty much summed up my day. I wanted to train. I wanted to do things like throw ladders, pull hoselines, and try out the new things I was learning while taking classes, but I had nobody to do it with, so I did nothing.

Then, one day, I had a realization: I was becoming one of the firefighters I had been complaining about. I decided I was not going to be a part of the problem and if I had to train by myself then I would figure out a way. Instead of waiting for someone on the crew to ask me if I wanted to train, I started asking them. Many times, I would get laughed at or rejected, but I didn’t care. I was going to make myself a better firefighter. There were a lot of lonely training days, and it gets difficult to figure out how to pull lines and pump a truck with one person, but I made it work. I don’t know if it was the guilt or the boredom, but those same firefighters who were laughing at me or rejecting my eagerness to train slowly started to join me. It wasn’t long before we were all training together on a regular basis.

I really believe that most firefighters get into the fire service because they love the job. At one time, maybe early in their career, they loved training and learning new things but, at some point, the passion dwindled. I think sometimes there just needs to be a spark to reignite that passion and motivate others to remember why they joined the fire service, so why not be that spark?

Another way to effect change within your fire department is to volunteer for special projects. Identifying the training needs of the department is the easy part. What are you and everyone else always complaining about? In many fire departments, the training division is overburdened with numerous issues, and it becomes the dumping ground for the entire department’s problems. Usually understaffed or not staffed with people who have the right mindset, it is easy for the division to get overwhelmed and for the department’s training to come to a standstill. So, if you can take some of the burden off the division, most times it is appreciated.

Training can be performed anywhere anytime. (Photo by author.)

Now in a world of fragile egos, it is best to seek approval from someone in the division while considering this route. A simple conversation with someone in the training division about how you would like to be more involved and you have some ideas about a training topic should hopefully get your foot in the door. If they agree, then great, you can start developing a training class or evolution. If they reject your idea, don’t give up; remember that change starts with you. Develop a training class or evolution at the station level for your crew or for yourself, and identify ways to fix the problem. Almost like a grassroots project, start it from the station level and see where you can grow from there. Get your station lieutenant, captain, or chief involved to communicate your ideas and run with it. Even if the training only begins with you, at least you will be able to sleep better knowing you are doing everything in your power to be a better firefighter. You can only control your actions, not the actions of others.

When developing a training class or evolution, there are four important factors to remember:

  • Study your training topic. When developing training, you need to know the ins and outs of the topic and know the problem areas to anticipate questions. 
  • Use your network to reach out to others for their thoughts on the topic. Often, other firefighters can give you insight or a way you have not thought of before.
  • Find out from your training division if there is a standard format it uses when developing training classes. Often, departments have a generic training outline they prefer to use. If you want to get your training class accepted by the department, you may need to use a specific outline.
  • Test run your class by putting yourself in the place of the student and take your own class. This will allow you to see from the vantage point of the student how the training will be received and any issues that may arise. If you have other firefighters you can run through the class, then use them and encourage positive feedback for areas of improvement.

In my experience, I have found two ways to get your training class or evolution approved by whomever approves training for your department:

  • Don’t care who takes the credit. Be excited about making positive change within your department instead of taking the credit on how great the class is. Be willing to submit your class to the training division and let a chief or the training division take the credit. Remember, we are about changing the culture of the department, not receiving a pat on the back for our work. Many times, it is a thankless, unnoticed job and one with slow progress. Even if you don’t get the credit, most times people know who it is coming from, and effecting change within your department is the true reward.
  • It is important to present a complete training class whenever you are trying to introduce a new topic or training. This limits the chances of rejection because all the work has been done. Also, if the training class is not completed, there is a good chance that it will never get completed or the training will not be performed the way you had envisioned. Submit a complete training class so that there is nothing for the individuals in charge to do but sit back and let the change happen.
uthorTraining alone is sometimes your only option. (Photo by author.)

The change you want to see in your fire department starts with you. The progress you make might be slow and at times you will feel defeated but, make no mistake about it, if you do nothing but complain, nothing will change. Maintain self-motivation and it will extend to others. Passion is contagious in the fire service, but it takes continuous maintenance to keep it alive. Be the change you want to see within your fire department and, in the words of Firefighter Aaron Fields from the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, “There are no shortcuts for hard work, just work.”

Kevin Whitaker has been with the St. Lucie County (FL) Fire District since 2005 and is the lieutenant on Engine 15. Prior to that, he served as the training officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire and emergency services from the University of Florida as well as an associate of arts degree in general studies and an A.S. degree in emergency medical services. He has his State of Florida Instructor 3 certification and is a certified Live Fire Training instructor. He is also an adjunct faculty member for the Fire Academy at Indian River State College. He is a co-founder and instructor for the Treasure Coast H.O.T. Fire Conference and has instructed or assisted in numerous conferences around the State of Florida.

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