MDA Is Important-But Find Time to Train First

Dear Nozzlehead: We need more emphasis on training and maintenance of firefighter life safety equipment at my department. My department places too much emphasis on standing out for 8 hours on Saturday, Sunday and 3-day weekends, collecting for MDA. Our training is hindered by this and pre-fire surveys. It seems that emergency calls come second on the list. We need to keep focused on training and readying our equipment. What do you think about this?
–Tool Man

Dear Tool,
Back in the day, I used to love watching the old “Our Gang”/“The Little Rascals” short films. In one of them, one of the kids tells Spanky “we” have to fix a particular problem. I’ll never forget Spanky’s response as he looked up at his friend and said in a cool, calm, solid tone, “Whadya mean ‘we’?”

When you wrote that “we,” meaning the folks at your fire department, need more emphasis on training and maintaining equipment, I had to agree–and I don’t even know what department you’re from, who works there or anything else about it. But I do know that in most departments, there does need to be more emphasis on training and apparatus and equipment checks. But I’m not always sure it’s the management’s fault. Actually, in most cases, it’s not. Keep reading.

In your case, the MDA activities are a union activity–and one that only happens for a few days each year. So how does that interfere with doing truck checks and training year-round? It doesn’t. MDA is important and we have time to raise money for it.

So let’s take a look at the bigger picture, and I’ll relate a story from another department. I was recently speaking to a captain who was frustrated that his firefighters were not self-motivated to perform their apparatus and equipment checks–and that IS a problem for WE. When one tool is not checked, that affects all of US. Why wouldn’t we want to ensure that all of our stuff is always ready?

As the captain and I continued to chat, he realized that he was the solution to the problem. He was a pretty new officer in a new firehouse, and he hadn’t made it clear enough to his members why they needed to ensure every tool and piece of equipment on their apparatus was in perfect shape, and why they needed to be EXPERTS on every tool and task their company could be asked to perform. And this isn’t about management not doing its job. When we arrive at the firehouse at 0600 hrs, “management” is still sleeping. This is about us, and none of us are collecting for MDA at 0600 hrs.

Firefighters coming on duty should have one immediate and top priority: readiness. It starts with getting to work early and immediately “beating the clock” so that all of your stuff is ready before you get a run. From you personally being ready to your tools to your gear to your SCBA to the power tools–everything MUST be ready.

Unfortunately, in many departments, arrival at the firehouse for shift change is like a meeting of the garden club. Everyone gathers around, usually in the kitchen, catches up on each other’s gossip, then we get around to discussing, cooking and digesting breakfast, then we watch the news or read the paper–providing our own commentary to the day’s events, of course–and then we wander out into the apparatus room and act as if they’re being checked. And we blame our union and/or fire department leadership for that? PAH-LEEEZ!

Be it a volunteer firehouse, where PERFECT truck checks must be done at least weekly or, as we are discussing in this month’s column, a career firehouse, where PERFECT truck checks must be done at every shift change, the bottom line is readiness. And the lame excuse that the last shift or tour had no runs is nonsense. Each and every time you step onto that apparatus, YOU must take personal responsibility and make sure EVERYTHING, including you, is ready.

As far as training, yes, many departments have forgotten the importance of regularly scheduled basic training and company drills (every day, Sundays and holidays included). And by basic training, I mean some hands-on drills each tour on your engine, truck, rescue, squad or EMS skills. It may take an hour; it may take less; it may take much longer–but it’s training.

We get lazy and complacent for a variety of reasons, but the danger of not being self-motivated to do this stuff is that it can directly impact our ability to survive at a fire. A member of your fire company gets trapped, and you need a saw to get them out, and the saw’s out of fuel? A civilian needs rescuing and the thermal imager is dead? Heavy fire conditions trap a company in a hallway, and there’s a nozzle missing on your handline when it’s pulled? You get in trouble, and your portable radio battery–from the last shift–is dead? Each one of these accounts could have been solved by doing apparatus/equipment checks prior to anything else when you arrive at the firehouse for work. Wait, work? Maybe that’s why it’s called going to work.

So although it’s clear that leadership and management at any department must be responsible for the overall training, apparatus checks, etc., so often it’s us–the firefighters and officers in the firehouse–that cause it to NOT happen. If we genuinely want to do truck checks, there’s time. If we genuinely want to do company drills, there’s time. And if we genuinely want to go out and survey our first-due areas and do some pre-planning, there’s time for that as well.

A few years ago, I stopped in a firehouse to visit a friend, the captain of one of the nation’s busiest and most famous rescue companies. We were riding with a chief for the night and stopped by that company after midnight. When we walked in, the members were training. That’s right–training after midnight. Whoa! In some departments, that would be a reason to go nuts and file a grievance. When I asked why they were training so late, the captain responded, “We’re on duty and we’re expected to be ready.” He further commented that there’s plenty of other time for sleeping, mostly when off duty. It was clear who was in charge of that company and what his focus was. It should also be noted that many, many members of that department would work in that company in a heartbeat–there was, and has always been, a waiting list.

I agree with you, Tool, that training and readiness is the absolute priority. It’s why we’re here. Although some companies may be very busy doing “other duties as assigned” (or other duties because we’re too lazy to do what we know we should be doing), I’ve never visited a company that doesn’t have time for the important stuff: personal and equipment preparedness. So perform hands-on, meaningful company drills and apparatus/equipment checks every day without excuse.


Talking Back: Reader Feedback

I read your October piece titled “Lookin’ Out for No.1” (p. 22) and felt compelled to respond for clarification purposes. While I won’t comment about the concerns raised by Very, Very Voluntary, I would like to discuss your opinions about the need for an organization in Washington that can serve as a united voice for the fire service.

I serve as the executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Established in 1989, CFSI is a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy institute designed to educate Congress about the challenges and needs of all firefighters and emergency services personnel. The strength of our organization is our National Advisory Committee, composed of 42 national fire and emergency services organizations, including JEMS and FireRescue. Jim Page played an integral role in the development of CFSI and provided strong leadership throughout the years to help our organization bring about positive change for all first responders. Following the untimely loss of Jim, we have received tremendous support from Jeff Berend, who continues to support our mission in various ways.

As for our work in Washington, the Institute has served a critical role on a number of important federal issues, first and foremost the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. When the program was first under consideration on Capitol Hill in 2000, CFSI served the important role of organizing meetings with various stakeholders, including members of Congress, administration officials and representatives of the major fire service organizations (including both career and volunteer organizations). Since then, we have taken the lead in developing legislative strategies for the reauthorization of the grant program and the annual appropriations.

Following the July hearing, we organized and participated in a series of meetings regarding the reauthorization of the FIRE Act. A consensus was reached between the organizations regarding the reauthorization. More times than not, it requires a little give and take between the parties to achieve consensus, and this was no exception. We shared the recommendations to which we all agreed with Congressional leaders and our work is now reflected in the bill introduced in the House to reauthorize the grant programs.

CFSI is all about consensus building. Perhaps you’re unaware of our mission because we conduct our work at the national level, advocating for the needs of the fire service as a whole. We do not represent a particular element of the fire service. I would encourage you to visit our Web site at, where you can learn more about our mission.

Whenever I speak, I encourage firefighters to become more involved in the legislative process. Members are always eager to hear from their constituents (well, perhaps not all the time). If you ever walk the halls of Congress, you will see signs posted in front of many offices saying “This office is owned by the people of the __th Congressional district.” First and foremost, members of Congress should be accountable to the constituents they were elected to serve. But they cannot do their job effectively unless they hear from their voters.
–Bill Webb, Executive Director, CFSI

Nozzlehead Responds: When I think about the various fire service organizations, and my decades of membership in almost all of them, I don’t think of CFSI as a “membership” organization–and I am wrong. The difference is that in most membership organizations, firefighters or officers must “join” and then pay dues. In some organizations, we get our money’s worth. In some, we simply don’t.

When it comes to CFSI, we all “belong” without ever having to join. We all get support, without ever having to pay. We all get represented, without having to ask. We get “consensus-ed” without always wanting to be. And I am once again reminded about one of the most effective fire service organizations that often gets “our” work done successfully, without much fanfare or credit. Thanks!
–Nozzlehead (who’s attended my fair share of CFSI dinners)

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