Training: More Than Checking the Box

Assessments of the fire department attitude toward training should be ongoing. Training should be part of the fire department “culture” as well as daily expectations rather than an occasional occurrence.
Competence is developed by consistent as well as repetitious preparation and training. (Unsplash)

The program needs to be developed for the specific community being served

By Russell Shoultz

Training is the common denominator between fire departments, big and small! Everyone is training but is everyone trained? The objective is to ensure your fire department training program is doing more than “checking the box.” Fire departments training programs should be comprehensive. Fire department personnel should know the basic aspects of ISO and community specific requirements. Fire department personnel at all levels should know what is expected of them as it relates to “all hazards” the community might experience. The fire department training program must have a clear path to developing as well as maintaining a “culture of competence.”

Training Needs Assessment

The primary enemy within the fire and emergency services environment is complacency. Fire department personnel should be constantly challenged through training to ensure they are maintaining a culture of competence rather than living in a culture of complacency. There are multiple ways to assess in what direction the fire department training program needs to proceed.

Fire department personnel should be asked how prepared they feel for emergency incidents. This can be done in a one-on-one setting with company officers. Most personnel will be honest when in the right healthy environment. If fire department managers are concerned about getting honest feedback, they should assess the culture within the organization. Fire department leaders must be prepared for answers that are not what they might expect.

Drills and exercises can be used to assess fire department competence. Another way to assess attitudes toward training could be through an online survey platform. Fire department needs can also be accomplished through focused individual or group discussions.

Assessments of the fire department attitude toward training should be ongoing. Training should be part of the fire department “culture” as well as daily expectations rather than an occasional occurrence.

Fire departments should conduct after-action reviews. After-action reviews provide great insight into the effectiveness of a training program. Fire department leadership should ask: How did personnel perform? Where are the knowledge/performance gaps? This information can be used to develop an ongoing dynamic training plan. The fire department training program should be developed around the most likely worst-case scenarios within the community. This will evolve as the community risk assessments are conducted.

The goal of fire department training programs is for personnel to continually develop and maintain a solid emergency services skill set. The fire department training program needs to be developed for the specific community being served. Do not just “copy and paste.”

Fire department personnel at all levels should have a basic understanding of ISO expectations. Most fire departments focus on fire rating improvements within the community while never educating personnel on the basics of ISO.  

Training Program

Most fire departments are responding to fewer fire incidents than in years past. This is good because fewer lives and less property are lost. Unfortunately, this creates a lack of experience and can lead to a culture of complacency. The complacent culture can lead to severe operational deficiencies when fire department personnel are faced with a low-frequency/high-consequence incident.

The training program should focus on personnel “managing an incident every day.” Whether checking the apparatus, performing hose stretches, SCBA training, or pre-incident planning, it should be done in the context of an actual response. The fire department training program should create a sense of urgency; crews should expect the “BIG ONE” each shift.

Fire department personnel should conduct some type of “hands-on” or “simulation” training each shift. This can include flowing water from assigned apparatus, driving apparatus where they will respond, and walking or talking through a “scenario of the week” with the crew.

At least once a quarter, some type of training with mutual aid or out-of-district companies should be conducted. During these sessions, a few points should be addressed: Do the companies know how to communicate with units from other districts? Is equipment compatible during fireground operations.

A large number of fire departments require multiple agencies to mitigate significant incidents. Fire departments often verbalize mutual-aid utilization during exercises but rarely work intimately with these resources. Fire department personnel should make every effort to routinely integrate mutual-aid companies into the training evolutions and sessions as often as possible. Fire departments should develop some type of curriculum or reference to provide to mutual-aid companies to ensure they are aware of basic integration information (radio frequencies or expectations).

Fire department training programs can use after-actions reports from recent incidents to “learn from others.” Near miss as well as NIOSH reports make great training resources. Personnel should be asking, “Can this happen here?” If the answer is “yes,” then fire department personnel should address the circumstance with scenario-based training as well as ensuring the local plans are updated. Fire department personnel should have a “seat at the table” when community risk assessments are being developed.

Most fire departments provide some degree of EMS response. The training program should include some type of “hands-on” EMS sessions. This could be accomplished through partnering with the local EMS response agency. Most of these agencies provide continuing education. Fire department personnel should ensure they are fully integrated into the local EMS system.

Personnel should orient to the local EMS units. If the fire department runs few EMS calls, some type of simulation lab is a way to ensure firefighters maintain some degree of competency with providing emergency care in the prehospital environment. If air medical resources are used, they should be integrated into the training program; most want to participate.

Fire department staffing may range from one firefighter on a shift to hundreds. Fire departments should embrace outside influence within their training programs. Any productive training program should include infusing current up-to-date information into the agency. A good way to do this is sending personnel to emergency service-focused conferences or training centers. This ensures fire department personnel are being exposed to the latest information and current industry standards.

The training program has to ensure a culture of competence exists within the fire department. Competence is developed by consistent as well as repetitious preparation and training. This level of readiness can only be achieved through focusing on a “hands-on” approach balanced with the latest industry standards.

Training Documentation

Fire department personnel should ensure that all the training conducted is documented. Fire departments should strive to exceed the minimum requirements. Training documentation should be in a format that is readily accessible to regulators as well as managers. Training documentation should be standardized throughout the organization. The documentation format should be developed to maximize credit as it relates to ISO enhancement initiatives. Training documentation can be a key component during post-incident investigations.

Training documentation is another way to show governing entities how often fire department personnel are engaged in emergency preparation activities. These numbers can assist in justifying budget activities.

Fire department training should never be about “checking the box.” Personnel should manage an incident every shift. This type of hands-on, practical approach will serve as a tool to defeat complacency and build a solid culture of competence within the any fire department.

Training Ideas
Create a scenario of the week/month.
Have everyone walk through a target hazard monthly.
Have everyone don PPE and stretch an attack line or perform a fireground function monthly.
Drive apparatus in areas where you will respond.
Conduct routine pre-incident planning.
Create vehicle rescue scenarios.
Have scrap vehicles brought in for tool and saw training.
Conduct quarterly mutual-aid training.

Russell Shoultz, MSN, CFO, has 29 years of public safety experience and recently retired as the fire chief for the Stennis International Airport as well as deputy chief for Harrison County Fire Rescue. He currently is a deputy Louisiana State Fire Marshal, serving on the COVID-19 Mass Vaccine IMT. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a nurse practitioner with a master’s degree from Ball State University.

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