Grade Your Fire Department

Over the past several years, I’ve often heard a saying among firefighters and, most notably, chiefs and officers: “We need to get back to the basics.” At first, I was surprised to hear this. I thought, “How and why did you or your department get away from the basics in the first place?” Last time I checked, it still said “fire department” on the side of the big red trucks, and the people who pay for them expect us to be competent and professional when called upon, especially when things are on fire. They don’t like it when we run around the fireground like the Three Stooges.

Hearing how many departments were apparently getting away from the basics, I set out to ask firefighters around the country some specific questions about their training regimens and where they believed most of their members’ time was spent. Many firefighters noted the following subjects as their top training time-killers: basic and refresher EMS; hazmat; WMD; NIMS-related training; department-specific topics, such as sexual harassment and social media policies; and documentation and report-writing, just to name a few. Wow! They weren’t kidding about needing to get back to basics. Where’s Hose-Stretching 101? What about training on building construction and how to read a roof? And where are the apparatus driving refreshers?

I know not every department is straying from the basics, but I was starting to see why so many were feeling disconnected from their profession. And yes, I realize that some of you are reading this and thinking, “We need the other stuff for job security.” But keep in mind that I never said that we shouldn’t train on the non-traditional tasks–we just need to think about how we prioritize our training.

Where Do We Begin?
After much thought and discussion with other firefighters, I decided to try to identify the areas where we could make the most impact on firefighter safety and survival–all in an effort to get back to basics.

I first looked at our NIOSH line-of-duty death (LODD) reports, which every firefighter should study. I tracked LODD statistics that NIOSH puts out with each fatality, as well as injury statistics from the USFA. As I read all these reports, I began to think about how I would “grade” the fire service as a whole and came to the unsettling opinion that the fire service can be graded at about a mid-level C. Some may think that’s harsh, while others may see it as too lenient. Regardless, I’ve tried to be objective, looking at the fire service as one big department, with some fire stations needing remedial training while others hold positions at the top of the class.

It soon became clear that there were three areas that stood out year after year in all of these LODD and injury reports:

  • Traumatic occurrences on emergency scenes
  • Health-related incidents and fatalities
  • Driving-related incidents

With this information, I began creating a simple but down-and-dirty approach that departments and individual firefighters can use to evaluate–and actually grade–themselves. Use this system to figure out what grade you get–and whether you need to make some changes to ensure that you’re training on the right topics.

Traumatic Occurrences on Emergency Scenes
Traumatic injuries come in many different shapes and forms. The majority of the NIOSH recommendations I’ve reviewed come back to training, training, training. Training is generally categorized as either lecture/classroom format or hands-on training (HOT). I believe that both are beneficial, but not equally weighted. Why? For the past 25 years, I’ve watched firefighters teach, learn and develop into masters of their craft via both forms of training. It seems that most of us are very tactile and kinesthetic-type learners and will tolerate sitting in one position for a short period of time. We need to touch it, hold it, play with it and try to break it before we have a really good grasp of why we should value the newfound information. As such, we need to ensure that we’re involved in some form of HOT. Let’s now grade ourselves on a few training methods.

Department-Based Lecture Training
A = Your department performs an annual department-wide review of at least six basic firefighting topics, such as hoseline advancement, pump operations, ventilation, forcible entry, search and rescue.
B = Your department reviews five basic firefighting topics each year.
C = Your department reviews four basic firefighting topics each year.
D = Your department reviews three basic firefighting topics each year. If this is your department, get off your butt and train like your life depends on it–because it does! And so do the lives of your fellow firefighters.

Conference-Based Lecture Training
A = Your department provides the opportunity for some members to attend three new lectures each year and is willing to discuss the pros and cons of the new information. Evaluation of the information assists in determining whether there is value in sending other members or the entire department.
B = Your department provides the opportunity to attend two new lectures each year.
C = Your department provides the opportunity to attend one new lecture each year.  
D = Your department does not provide the opportunity to attend any new lectures.

HOT is the by far the most valuable type of training that any firefighter can participate in to help obtain proficiency. The learning curve is blown off the charts when we finally let people practice what we want them to perform. But we must ensure that we don’t set out to breed bad habits. Live-fire evolutions let firefighters feel and visualize the closest thing to an actual incident. The muscle memory that instructors are trying to build with each class comes from repetition and lifelike experiences. But this can also be the downfall of a live-fire evolution if instructors aren’t on the same page with the training objectives and don’t possess the experience and pedigree of a seasoned firefighter with real-life fire experience. HOT should only be taught by those instructors who have a deep pool of experience. Students in HOT ask lots of questions that require accurate and timely responses.

Following are the grades associated with any form of HOT as well as the grades associated with live-fire training in particular:

Any Form of HOT
A = Your department provides four HOT sessions a year. These could be new or basic subjects with a new twist to the scenarios.
B = Your department provides three HOT sessions a year.
C = Your department provides two HOT sessions a year.
D = Your department provides one HOT session a year.

Live-Fire Training
A = Your department participates in four live-fire training events a year (fixed-burn facilities, gas-fired props, car fires, fire extinguisher training with live fire, etc.).
B = Your department participates in three live-fire training events a year.
C = Your department participates in two live-fire training events a year.
D = Your department participates in one live-fire training event a year.

Note: Acquired structure training–in compliance with  NFPA 1403 standards–is a bonus. Give yourself an A if your department members are participating in at least two acquired structure burns a year, and a B for at least one.

Health-Related Incidents& Fatalities
I found several constants in the reports related to general health and heart-healthy living. First, I learned that more than 40% of firefighters are considered obese by national standards. You don’t have to look too far around the firehouse to confirm this one. And in conjunction with poor eating habits, we still aren’t exercising enough to stay healthy while we serve and help prolong our life overall.

Further, there are other job-related factors that impact our health. For one, no matter how diligent we are with our PPE, we still need to consider the toxins we inhale, ingest and absorb over the course of a 20-plus year career. Even the stress of  routinely being woken up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night for a call takes a toll on your heart and can take years off your life.

With all that in mind, use the following grading system to see how you and your department stack up in this category.

Health-Related Incidents& Fatalities
A = Your department participates in yearly physicals, promotes physical fitness with mandatory PT time or fitness equipment, and mandates no smoking for new personnel.
B = Your department provides physicals for members over the age of 35, supports fitness but doesn’t mandate time to exercise or provide the tools to do so, and encourages no smoking.
C = Your department provides no physicals but advocates PT.
D = Your department provides no physicals and no fitness time or equipment.

Driving-Related Incidents
Although we continue to improve in this area, each new year brings new apparatus drivers. Compounding this are personally owned vehicles: We still have members who think they need to respond with lights and sirens to the station first and then take the big red truck to the scene in the same manner. But just because your pick-up or car has a bubble gum light on the top does not make it an emergency vehicle. We ask for the right of way in any vehicle, but we should not assume that we have it. We need to drive defensively 100% of the time–not drive like we just stole the vehicle.

The other major contributor in driving-related fatalities and injuries involves tankers and tenders. Many times these vehicles come in the form of department fabrications that may or may not be up to specs. When 1,000-plus gallons of water is put into motion without the proper baffling and compensation mechanisms, it’s easy to see why the apparatus wants to stay in motion and roll off the road. As such, novice operators need driving time before the emotion of the emergency run overrides their lack of experience. Following is the grading system for this category.

Driving-Related Incidents
A = Your department mandates an inter-department driving certification for the specific apparatus that the operator will be driving, has a formal accident review policy with punitive action for reckless driving, performs yearly driving competency exams, performs yearly license checks and has adopted a formal seatbelt policy.
B = Your department sends its operators to an Emergency Vehicle Operator course, has a seatbelt policy and performs yearly license checks.
C = Your department has a seatbelt policy and checks employees’ driver’s licenses upon employment.
D = Your department members drive to the station in a car, but never have to show proof of a driver’s license (D+ if it’s a standard stick shift).

Work Toward an A
I hope this gives you an idea of where to start the evaluation process for you and your department. Take out those red pens and start a grading sheet to take a good, honest look at what we’re doing as a profession so we can improve personal safety for both our employees and the citizens we are sworn to protect. The bottom line: When you respond to more than 25 million incidents a year across the nation, accidents are going to happen–and this is still a dangerous profession. But I believe that we can do better and work toward an A grade.

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