Hold a higher standard for those we entrust to build the foundational knowledge
By Christopher Garniewicz
For a little more than a quarter of a century, I have been a student of the fire service. During my first few years, the “fire triangle” was still being used; the tetrahedron was just beginning to come into favor as we included the “uninhibited chain reaction” into our learning of fire theory and behavior. I was able to participate in the transition from three-quarter boots to bunker pants and from pressure-demand self-contained breathing apparatus to our now standard positive pressure, CBRN-compliant, integrated PASS systems. When I started, smoking was still allowed in the rig, and seat belts were optional. While I can admit that the change to the modern fire service standards is a definite improvement, there is still one facet lacking modernization: instructor education.
Not too far into my career, I found teaching. Passing on knowledge is a necessity, as our vocation is driven by a mentor/mentee style relationship as we build and guide our next generation of firefighters with not just on-the-job learning but experiences from the past. We spend an inordinate amount of time creating firefighters who could be adaptable on the fireground or emergency scene. They are constantly bombarded with new training, information, skills, and classes. I have seen countless classes on enhancing specific skill sets (Engine, Truck, EMS), and boxes full of texts on passing the next promotional exam and building leadership. These are an encouraging manifestation of the passion our members have for passing the torch of information and learning to the next generation.
With this wealth of contextual knowledge available, a quick Internet search shows the same does not apply to fire instructor education and training. With only a handful of texts available on instructor education (not to be confused with initial instructor training for specific class delivery), I believe it is time we look at moving our instructor education into a place where it can get the additional attention it has needed for decades. While National Fire Protection Association 1041, Standard for Fire and Emergency Services Instructor Professional Qualifications, is a great starting point, no firefighter I have ever met would say that recruit school is all a firefighter ever needs to know. Why, then, do we not hold a higher standard for those we entrust to build the foundational knowledge for those coming into the service behind us?
One of the most fascinating classes I have taken (in or out of school) was on brain-based learning. We use and believe the science when discussing things like thermal balance, flow path, heat release rate, and fire growth and spread. Why, then, are we so reluctant to look at the science of learning? Accepted academic theory on creating an “expert” is the 10,000-hour rule. That is two hours a day, seven days a week for more than 13 years. An engaging, passionate, informed instructor is not, then, created with a 40-hour class, some continuing education, and limited experience. Additional education (coursework), proper mentorship, and constructive evaluation should be requirements, not just afterthoughts. Understanding how and why we learn, building memory, and forming (or breaking) habits are keys to unlocking the great potential in our instructor cadre. We (as a country) require more educational training of our elementary school teachers than we do of those who instruct new recruits in an ultra-hazardous profession. Do I think every fire instructor should have a degree? No. By the same measure, I also believe that a firefighter with no previous experience, five years on the job, and an IFSAC Instructor I certificate doesn’t belong in front of a group of new hires. Our job as instructors is to build a bulletproof foundational knowledge for these future firefighters/officers/chiefs to expand on for the next 25 to 30 years.
After trying to navigate the instructional waters for years, I finally chose to return to academia to search for a better understanding of how this profession might look with some outside influence. While those who have never been part of this world can’t fully understand us, there is certainly educational information that is not only transferable into our industry but also has the ability to improve on a system we are already using effectively. I’m not saying we don’t build great firefighters; our track record is impressive and consistent. I would argue that, as phenomenal as our record is now, it could be even better with some adjustment and retooling.
Imagining the possibilities for a profession that is my passion is truly something I enjoy. Trying to push this industry forward has been my incentive for not only teaching but in going back to school. Understanding that we can only progress so far without the help of others can be a bitter yet necessary pill to swallow. In reaching out, I have been able to achieve more than I ever expected. The ultimate realization for me is that the fire service instructor educational programming has been stifled in the majority of the states. Requiring no more than basic initial instruction before unleashing them to teach, we are setting instructors up if not for poor performance than for teaching to the test so student pass rates are acceptable. We have some brilliant minds teaching in the service today, but I argue they are the exception, not the rule. I would also bet on their passion driving them to improve above and beyond anything their individual state academies require.
Most vocations we think about involve some form of leadership and mentorship role modeling. Whether you call them probationary, journeyman, or apprentice, they all require formal and informal training and evaluation before progression up to competency and ultimately mastery of the trade. We need this for our fire instructors. Let’s put some mentoring and evaluation into the trade of becoming an instructor. Developing competent classroom and drill field skill sets shouldn’t be a mystery to figure out. Some of the best professional athletes still have coaches and mentors, so why not our instructors? Are three or four years of additional oversight, training, and evaluation too much for someone to teach for the rest of their career? Shouldn’t we instill a passion for continued learning in those we have educating? It is time we honestly revisit our priorities as a professional organization that is responsible for training its membership. If recruit schools (initial training) are measured in months, why are instructor education classes (Instructor I, II, II) measured in weeks?
Chris Garniewicz is a captain with the Bluffton Twp. (SC) Fire District currently assigned to Ladder 333. He has a master’s degree in education from Northeastern University (MA) and is an IFSAC certified Fire Instructor 2. He is an instructor with the SC Fire Academy, a member of the recruit cadre with the Bluffton Twp. Fire District, and lectures throughout the East Coast on truck operations and instructor education. He began his career in the Metro Boston area, serving as a volunteer firefighter and EMT.