A Family Dynamic, Part II

The pathway from the Rookie to the Senior Firefighter is the same as the pathway from a child to an adult.
We cannot progress to the action level without the performance level (Unsplash)

The Role of the Parent During COVID-19

By Michael DeStefano

Store shelves are emptying, lines to get into grocery stores extend around the block, and there are fights in the aisles for toilet paper, its like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. There is no question that COVID has changed the world this year. The Fire Department is not immune from these changes; however, we are exempt from the “stay safe, stay home” mantra.  Our jobs didn’t stop during COVID, in fact in many places the call volume and work load increased. The other aspect that didn’t stop was the need to hire new firefighters and to continue to train.

FirefighterNation: The Family Dynamic

The beginning of the pandemic came with mass hysteria of the unknown and guidelines that were implemented with the same thought process. When an unknown contagion is discovered the way, we react is with an overabundance of caution. Schools and businesses closed, mask mandates went into effect, social distancing became the norm. These changes effectively shut down the ability for Fire Department’s to conduct in-person training for the last nine months.

So, what is our option for training when in-person training is shut down? Enter virtual and online training.  This style is nothing new and has been around for decades now from the medic monthly of the past in the form of VHS video tapes (you may have to explain this to the younger firefighters) to online instruction. But is this truly effective training? The answer is no.

If we take a look at Miller’s Pyramid of clinical competence we can see that effective training makes up three of the four blocks of the pyramid.

The first level in developing professional expertise, which is why we train in the first place, is to the know the skill. This is absolutely effective with virtual training through video instruction or interactive online courses. When we compare this to an in-person course this would be the lecture of the class.

The second level of the pyramid is the knows how section. This section is a bit more hands-on than the knows portion and requires a level of in-person training. Don’t get me wrong we have all watched a YouTube video online to learn how to replace a fuel filter on a car and had no trouble at all completing the task. Fire training is a bit more complex however as the situation is constantly fluid and small changes in conditions lead to big changes in how we accomplish a specific task. Having an onsite instructor is critical in these instances to ensure that questions are answered with immediate feedback.

The third and final approach that can be accomplished with training is the shows how level. This is the level in which the student demonstrates what they have learned. Again, this level needs to have in-person feedback during the demonstration of the task to help polish their skills.

If we look at online command training for example, we see that there is typically a video instruction to teach the “knows” portion, followed by interactive online portions to enforce the “knows how”, but also has an in-person lab portion that satisfies the “shows how” level. All of this follows the training model with the final portion of the pyramid of professional expertise being the “does” level, which is our actual experience utilizing the skills in the field.

Looking back on the challenges that COVID has created, we need to find ways to overcome our inability to meet the requirements of the “shows how” level and still achieve effective training. Afterall, we cannot progress to the action level without the performance level, at least not efficiently and safely. So how do we accomplish our training needs while navigating the ever-changing guidelines of COVID? Parents.

Looking back on our Family Dynamic model, we understand that we have different positions within the Fire Department that can be described and categorized based on roles within our family. The Rookie is our child, Senior Firefighter is the older sibling, Company Officer is our parent, and the Chief Officers are our wise old grandparents. Each has a distinct role and responsibility within the family that is our Fire Department.

Our rookies are our children that are thirsting for knowledge. They are excited to run each and every call and can easily run off into dangerous situations if distracted. Our children need guidance on everything from potty training to how to act in public, the same holds true for our rookie Firefighters. The rookie Firefighter looks to their older siblings (Senior Firefighters) as well as their parents (Company Officers) to teach them the ways of the world. This type of instruction and learning is only mildly affected by COVID shutdowns and restrictions as much of it occurs at the fire station with their crew anyway.

The young adult or older sibling meets the description of our Senior Firefighter. This role has learned how to operate on their own with little to no guidance and can achieve tasks when assigned. They tend to take the younger siblings under their wing and show them the ropes. The older sibling has accepted authority over the younger kids but not necessarily formal authority as they are not a parent (Company Officer).  

The pathway from the Rookie to the Senior Firefighter is the same as the pathway from a child to an adult, they must go through the dreaded and awkward teenage years. These teenage years are where the Firefighter develops the skills necessary to work on their own as a productive member of the crew. Just like a child going to school to gain this advanced education, the Firefighter does the same. School consists of technical level courses at the local community college, multi-company training at the drill yard, or college level courses. This is where COVID has placed a giant gap in the Fire Service’s ability to grow and provide the services the public expects. With in-person training being shut down from colleges and Training Divisions, the separation of competence level to action level in our pyramid is a gap that is not easy to overcome. But not to worry, there is one role in the family that can overcome this challenge.

The parent is the Company Officer of the crew. The parent has learned how to work on their own much like the young adult, however has accepted the responsibility of caring for the rest of the family. The parent knows it must provide for the children and keep them safe at all costs. In order to do this, they must teach the children how to function, be aware of dangerous situations, and how to avoid those situations. Pretty good definition of fire training isn’t it?

So, what happened when schools shut down during COVID? Parents were forced to play teacher. The child would go online to take online courses from their schools (knowledge level), then complete online tasks and homework (competence level), followed by parents reviewing the material and helping them to function without the guidance of online instruction (performance level). The same needs to happen in our fire families. So how can we achieve this?

Investigate- The Company Officer needs to evaluate their Firefighters to see where they need polishing. A blanket approach to single company training is rarely successful as each crew has a different level of experience and skills. Find what your firefighters need to be successful and train!

Plan- Design a training schedule that keys in on the individual skills that they need to learn and progress through our pyramid. Knowledge is lecture, competence is hands-on, and performance is scenario-based application.

Implement- Set the plan in motion. For example, with search training start with lecture on why search is important and types of searches. Next go over how to complete an oriented search step by step. Finally, perform the searches through scenario-based training while the Company Officer observes either as a crew member of the search or as an instructor, either way, providing critical feedback and tips to the crew in the process.

Re-evaluate- As the crews move into the action portion of the Professional Expertise pyramid re-evaluate their needs to re-train if necessary or advance the training as they show they can utilize the skills learned on calls.

Repeat- Repeat the process as needed or advance skills to match the level of competence the crew is demonstrating on actual calls.

When we look at challenges in the fire service from a familiar outlook we are able to overcome adversity. Our Fire Department crews are our fire family, comparing them to the roles of our actual families allows individuals to understand what their roles are and how they should act within those roles. COVID has presented and continues to present unique restrictions that we need to overcome in order to do our jobs. Training is one such aspect that must be kept in the forefront of our functions that we continue providing and not allow to be temporarily shut-down.

Michael DeStefano, District Chief of Training, Brevard County Fire Rescue

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