Hey, Chief, Are We Training Them for Failure?

Meeting the minimum standard is not going to keep you and your department out of trouble.
FETC Services – Surviving the Insult, NFPA 1403 Live Fire Training. (Horgan, Dublin, NH Volunteer Fire Department photo)

Average training breeds an average fire department

By William Greenwood

One of the biggest challenges for any professional educator is how to stay up to date with the latest ways to engage and motivate fire service students for positive behavioral modification. Most of us understand that one size fits all training, in the fire service doesn’t engage everybody. But, is it bigger than that? Depending on your audience’s intelligence map (which is personality based for each student in the fire service) they can greatly differ in learning styles. For example, some firefighters can easily read a chapter in the textbook, comprehend the material, and ultimately retain that information for use at a later date while others simply cannot. While some struggle to stay awake while trying to read a book.

The 3 Challenges in Human Dynamics

The fire service is driven by many rules, regulations, policies, and standards. Many of these require or drive the structural firefighting industry to complete initial and recurrent training. One would think that all this training would make us ready to respond with a high level of service. So, why do we commonly see fireground problems or mishaps during emergency incidents?

Challenge 1 – The Working Environment Is Like Nothing They Have Seen Before

The working environment at the time of alarm exposes firefighters to extreme levels of stress. High-stress incidents have been proven to decrease a person’s IQ by 50 percent in the first seven minutes of acute exposure. (1) This factor alone will immediately decrease their level of comprehension, production and services from an industry minimum (if you choose to train to a minimum standard) by 50 percent. So if 70% is acceptable in the classroom and on the drill yard, don’t be surprised when they produce 35% at the big show.

Challenge 2 – The Training Schedule Is Often Replicated Over and Over

Training officers who haven’t been properly prepared or have been doing this for a very long time need to continually seek professional development themselves. You see, if you have never seen what another fire departments have been doing or haven’t attended an international conference like FDIC International then the only thing they know is what you have done internally. If that is the case, your department will become a product of the environment they were raised in. This can create a shortcoming when you’re required to prove your worth to the public we’ve sworn to protect. Lives are at stake and we may have never been exposed to the complexities associated with today’s fire ground emergency. Yes, training must start at the most basic level, where we build a foundation of (KSA) knowledge, skills, and abilities. But once that foundation has been laid, we must advance our knowledge base to include not only new training, technology or equipment, but we MUST focus on the student’s mental and physical learning environment as well.

Challenge 3 – Are They Ready for Stress-Induced Tactics?

Training often is based in a highly controlled and safe learning environment. That said, if your training environment doesn’t match the working environment; you are potentially setting your department up for failure. For example, fire apparatus operations are a critical component of the suppression team. Sometimes the working environment is not the picture perfect day. Harsh weather, frozen hydrants, hose failures and mechanical complications are part of the job. Does your driver operator program include operating apparatus in these types of conditions before a real incident occurs? If the answer is no, then how can you expect the A-team to show up on game day. Successfully pumping apparatus in a perfect world does not prepare them for dealing with challenges under highly stressful situations. To further challenge you: can your firefighters function to a level of capacity when their heart rate is above 150 beats per minute? Acute stress can cause the body to have a physiological response (2) to the report of an alarm or emergency. For example when the tones drop for the report of a building fire with kids trapped. You see many firefighters will attempt to replicate the training that they learned but on that high risk, high stress incident they may experience the struggle to remember the most basic steps, systematic processes, or the knowledge base to safely operate. While other operators with even lower emotional intelligence scores may suffer stress-induced paralysis. That is when the stress of the event caused them to freeze up; and ultimately produce little to no fire ground functionality.

VES Over Fire Training, City of Keene Fire. (BIll Greenwood photo)

Preparing Better Battle-Ready Brothers and Sisters

Good fire instructors will create a basic foundation for behavioral modification. They will then increase a student’s knowledge base with advanced training and tactics. Advanced instructors will then attempt to replicate real-world working environments by adding challenges that students must be able to identify and overcome. Top-quality, industry-leading fire instructors who desire to take their firefighters, students or the organization to the next level must have an elite instructor knowledge base. That next level training is achieved by identifying their student’s intelligence map and developing individualized training or training tips to achieve
maximum comprehension and retention. Next level training should include (SITT) Stress Induced Tactical Training evolutions. Providing evolutions that firefighters need to identify a set of challenges, formulate a plan and overcome emotional obstructions that prevent cognitive thinking. Acute stress events can produce high levels of cortisol in firefighters. Firefighters who are first-time, first-experience operators are often not prepared for high stress decision making. They often generate their primary decision making from the limbic system of their brain. The limbic mode is where fight-or-flight is activated. The underdeveloped first responder with a low emotional intelligence may have a difficult time interpreting, understanding, and acting upon situations that
involve high levels of emotions (3). The fire service is often driven on a high level of emotion. We respond to people who are hurt, injured or suffering both mentally and physically. Often times these emotions are highly present on scene. Firefighters who are under duress can make decisions based on personal survival and not from cognitive thinking. The value of stress-induced training is teaching the student how to manage the stress. You see stress induced training allows the student to learn ways to control their emotions that can shut off rationale thought processing in critical times.

Trapped in the Basement, Escape Techniques. (Bill Greenwood photo)

A Classic Example for Greater Buy-in

Most firefighters are trained to say LUNAR to call a MAYDAY. Many fire departments do this type of training annually in the station with portable radios. Unfortunately, the under-developed training instructor who completes this training annually in a non-stress environment may think he or she is properly preparing the firefighter to remember the acronym but is actually not. In the non-stress environment, a large percentage of firefighters can remember what LUNAR means, but next time you are doing SCBA search and rescue training, have the firefighters attempt to recite and give a LUNAR radio report to the incident commander while buried
under a simulated ceiling collapse. Without warning, drop one of the fire station mattresses on the firefighter and sit on top of it. While the firefighter is physically impeded to find his radio microphone and mentally challenged because that stress causes his or her brain to go into a fight or flight mode, watch what happens when they can’t remember what the acronym means. That is one example of how important stress-induced tactical training can be with zero impact to the operating budget. Training for the environment you’re expected to work in will make a huge difference in firefighter survival.

Anyone can easily read the labels on the pump panel on a good day. I am talking about hood-on-backwards, zero-visibility pump panel training. That hood combined with an instructor who creates some verbal, time-sensitive stress will provide a benchmark of readiness. Are you training for failure in pump operations such as unforeseen actions of water loss, pump cavitation and / or mechanical failures? Instructors who successfully allow a student to prove the skill then sabotage the apparatus and equipment on the next evolution can recreate mechanical failures that the pump operator must work through while flying solo. Once again, with a
seasoned fire instructor who is creating verbal, time-sensitive stress. So I need to ask, looking at your existing firefighter training program will your firefighters sink or swim?

Remember: the bare minimum is one level above substandard in a “controlled training environment.” Do not fall victim to 35% comprehension / productivity. The trap is failing to see that meeting “the minimum standard” is going to keep you and your department out of trouble in the aftermath of a high-stress event. Average training breeds an average fire department! Prepare your firefighters and fire instructors to be the best they can possibly be!


  1. Bust Stress for Better Business; Peak Performance. Kerwin Rae. March 20, 2017
  2. Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience; Luethi, Meier, and Sandi; Aug 05, 2008
  3. Emotional Intelligence 2.0; Bradberry and Greaves. 2009.

William Greenwood is a 27-year student of the fire service. He is currently the Chief of the T.F. Green International Airport Fire Department located in Warwick, Rhode Island. Billy recently retired from the City of Keene, NH Fire Department after 22 years of service. He is also a Senior Staff Instructor for the New Hampshire Fire Academy and has been a presenter at FDIC International for the past 10 years.

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