Fixing Fire Training
Training in most U.S. fire departments could use a good overhaul. Firefighters know this: in WFS' 1995 survey of women firefighters throughout the U.S., most were critical of their agency's training program. Training should be the cutting edge of the fire service, keeping firefighters and officers skilled and current as it leads fire departments into the future. Instead, it is often under-prioritized, underfunded, disrespected, or ignored entirely. The fire department, and the fire service as a whole, suffer as a result.
Training and women firefighters
Poor training affects female firefighters in particular, in several ways. Female recruits and firefighters are often subject to higher scrutiny or stricter standards than their male counterparts are. Many feel constantly "under the microscope": their mistakes are more readily noticed or taken more seriously, and that they must perform much better than their male counterparts in order to be thought nearly as competent. It is very difficult to achieve such a high level of performance under the best of circumstances, and nearly impossible when training is inadequate.
Fire training, as it is currently delivered, often fails to address individual differences in personal backgrounds and learning styles. It often adopts methods used in training men for team sports or the military. These methods can be effective with recruits who have sports or military backgrounds, and who learn well from these methods; they are often ineffective with those who don't. As one woman firefighter said, "I don't think women respond as men do to the 'scream in your face' mentality of teaching." Another said:
I am not a hands-on person who 'just has to see it once.' I need to read and think about things and talk with people to gain understanding. In the fire service, this is often considered to be questioning authority. (1)
Training often fails to address other differences among firefighters as well, particularly new recruits. Women who enter firefighter training often have strong academic backgrounds and excellent skills in many areas that do not include mechanical knowledge or familiarity with tools. Firefighter training, traditionally aimed at male students who have learned basic mechanical skills elsewhere and are familiar with many tools, typically does not address the learning needs of others. One firefighter described her experiences:
When I was first being taught how to open a hydrant, they handed me the hydrant wrench and told me, "You use this just like you would any other wrench." I had never, to my absolutely certain knowledge, ever held a wrench of any kind before. They tell me to cut along the floor joists; I have never wielded an axe; never heard the term "joist." (2)
The strong academic backgrounds and other non-traditional skills of a more diverse pool of recruits should enhance and expedite the training process in those areas. Teaching hydraulics, for example, is often much easier with college-educated recruits than it is with those who barely passed high-school math. As the fire service workforce continues to diversify, instructors are training more recruits, of both sexes, whose backgrounds differ from that of the students for whom the training was originally designed. Such instructors find it appropriate and effective to adjust their training programs accordingly.
Inadequate training can also affect women more than men because of cultural differences between the sexes. Men are often more willing than women to appear confident in a situation about which they actually have little knowledge: many women require a more secure learning base to provide the same level of confidence. Poor training will thus leave women feeling less competent than their male peers. Women (in general) are also more willing than men to admit they don't know something and to ask questions in order to learn. Instructors who are used to training only men may be unaware of these differences, and may view the questions or lack of confidence as incompetence and evaluate the women negatively as a result.
Changing the way we train
The purposes of fire service training are, or should be:
- To teach new fire recruits what they need to know in order to function well on the job;
- To keep skills current for all fire personnel;
- To introduce new ideas, techniques, skills and equipment to all personnel; and
- To maintain and improve the function of individual crews, of groups of crews working together, and of department personnel working with personnel from other agencies.
In practice, fire departments' training programs rarely meet all these goals. To complicate matters, other training agendas and goals are sometimes included or substituted, such as:
- To intimidate recruits, "see who can cut it," and find ways to fire some of them;
- To punish incumbent firefighters; or
- To go through the motions so the department looks good on paper.
Clearly it will benefit not only women but the entire firefighting organization if its leaders will reevaluate their agency's training and make changes where they are needed. Some questions to consider are:
- Are the people who coordinate, design and deliver training chosen for their abilities in these areas and good at their jobs?
- Does the training curriculum address all of the department's current training needs, with realistic priorities?
- Are training and teaching methods flexible, to reach as wide a range of students as possible?
- Is the training environment positive and supportive, rather than punitive or intimidating?
- Are training facilities and equipment adequate and current?
The firefighter academy, or basic recruit training, is the first extended point of contact between the fire department and its new personnel. Recruit training is where the department introduces not only its practices but also its philosophy, values and standards to the employee. A progressive department will take a positive approach to this opportunity.
A positive approach means operating from the belief that recruit training exists to teach new firefighters what they need to know, in an environment that supports learning. Under such a philosophy, there is no room for a punitive approach that tries to make training as artificially difficult as possible in order to see who can "cut it" and who can't. Fire departments are finding it much more effective to emphasize learning over intimidation. Not surprisingly, this yields better results with recruits of all kinds.
Some instructors and chiefs feel that because the fire service is a paramilitary organization, recruit training should be done in militaristic ways. But the fire service's paramilitary tradition is a half-hearted one at best, and in any case, current management philosophy is trending more towards the idea of the fire service as a business. Even where the paramilitary tradition was strongest, the fire service often adopted the worst aspects of the military (unquestioning obedience to all orders, the automatic superiority of officers) and few of its best (accountability, dedication to providing high-quality service, and control of inappropriate behavior). If particular aspects of paramilitary culture are important - such as when one must take an order without discussing it, or how the chain of command works - those can readily be taught, and the counterproductive aspects changed. As one fire captain said,
Our recruit academy went through at least ten years of so-called instructors who ran it like a boot camp. As an officer, I don't want an "Army grunt." I want a professional, wits-about-you firefighter. (3)
An approach to training that treats recruits with respect can develop their analytical skills and encourage them to be problem-solvers, rather than simply asking them to memorize information and repeat it on demand.
In practice, creating a positive learning environment means many things. For example, it means giving students plenty of time to practice physical skills before being evaluated on them, which recruit training often does not. Instructors should give full, clear instruction on and demonstration of all physical skills. Students should then practice the skill under supervision (for reasons of safety) and get instructor feedback to help them do it better. Only after each recruit has had the chance to go through this process should they be evaluated. Once the recruits have demonstrated their competence at each basic task, the tasks can be integrated into evolutions, and practiced and performed the way they would be on the fireground.
For evaluation, each recruit should complete each task for which they are responsible. Time constraints sometimes encourage instructors to "check off" students who in fact have only watched someone else perform a task. This is unfair to everyone concerned. It sets the recruit up to fail later on, in the field, and the failure will appear to be the recruit's fault: after all, he or she was "trained" and checked off on the skill.
A recruit training program can provide time for each student to learn, practice and be properly evaluated only if it receives adequate support from the department's leadership. If management does not make training a priority, even highly-qualified and well-intended instructors will not be able to make it work. The recruit academy must be of a sufficient length to allow proper training, and either by limiting the size of the recruit classes or increasing the training staff, the ratio of students to instructors must be kept small.
A positive training environment also means having the flexibility to teach a wide range of recruits effectively. This relates to learning styles and backgrounds, as mentioned above, as well as to the ability to provide extra assistance to those who request it. This help may come from the training staff after hours, or from an official or informal mentoring program that links incumbent firefighters with recruits to provide support, guidance and supplemental training. If the training staff is to provide such help, their schedules must be designed to permit it: the program will work only on paper if instructors are so busy with their other duties that they never really have the time to help. However this assistance is provided, no penalties or censure should be attached to its use.
Most fireground skills and evolutions can be performed safely and efficiently by more than one method. Traditional approaches to firefighter training do not explore or even permit alternate methods; officers and instructors tend to view the traditional methods as "right" and then find a pretext for justifying them.
I remember this from my own early days in firefighting. When I went through recruit school, I was taught always to climb a ladder moving your right hand when your right foot moved, and your left hand with your left foot. They explained the reason for this, which I've forgotten by now; the point was that it was important to climb in this way. A few years later, I started over on a different fire department. During a ladder drill shortly after I was hired, the captain said, "Of course, you always climb right hand/left foot," and, of course, he had some suitably compelling reason for it. I began to wonder just how many of the other "absolutes" we're taught as firefighters are just as arbitrary.
Firefighters should be encouraged to perform a task in the a way that is most efficient for them and gets the job done safely. Physical techniques for smaller, shorter firefighters should be incorporated wherever possible into physical skills and evolutions. Different techniques should be demonstrated equally, without implying that one method is somehow inferior or should only be used if the recruit is having trouble with the "normal" or "regular" method.
For example, many women firefighters have found that using a reverse grip on a ladder halyard (with the thumb edge of the hands facing downward) allows a more efficient use of strength. Hose-handling techniques that allow a single firefighter to control an 1-1/2" or 1-3/4" line by crossing it in front of the body and allowing the firefighter's body weight to lean into it are often more effective for lighter-weight firefighters. Many such techniques can be learned by watching smaller veteran firefighters in action, or talking with women firefighters about the ways they accomplish fireground tasks.
Techniques that are more efficient for smaller, lighter firefighters usually also end up being safer and more efficient for others. One fire agency's training chief observed:
If the big guys use the same technique as the smaller people, they distribute the work more throughout their body, fatigue more slowly, and have less potential for pulling muscles.
In an evolution that requires several firefighters' coordinated efforts, some standardization of technique will be necessary for efficient operation. But it is efficiency, effectiveness and safety that should be the guiding criteria, not "how we've always done it."
Fire training instructors should be chosen for their ability to teach and communicate information to a wide range of students. They should be knowledgeable about firefighting, skilled at developing a curriculum and writing lesson plans, and interested in improving their department. They should have excellent organizational skills and a positive attitude towards training and towards the students. Instructors should never be assigned to the training academy as punishment, or because they need a light-duty assignment, or in order to improve their resumes.
The training staff should themselves be given appropriate education in how to teach, and should have frequent opportunities to attend training outside the department. They must have adequate time, resources and departmental support to allow them to carry out their responsibilities. The training center should provide usable office space as well as classrooms, apparatus bays, a burn tower and other necessary facilities. Equipment used in training should be contemporary with that used in the field: it is of little use to firefighters to be trained on out-of-date apparatus, and frustrating or dangerous to have to work with equipment that is cumbersome or malfunctioning due to age.
The training staff should be as diverse as possible. It should include women, people of color, and individuals of different ages and sizes. This is particularly crucial for classes that have women and minority recruits, but it is an important general practice as well, to give the clear message that the fire department values the diversity of its workforce.
Consistency and fairness
Information must be presented to recruits in a consistent way. It is confusing and frustrating to the new firefighter to learn something from one instructor on Monday, only to have another instructor give conflicting information on Tuesday. Lesson plans should be in place for every lecture and hands-on training session, so the material will be consistently presented regardless of the instructor. (These lesson plans can also be used by company officers in the stations, to train their crews.) Lesson plans should be reviewed on a regular basis to keep them consistent with department practice and equipment.
The criteria for passing or failing the fire academy should be clearly explained to all recruits and strictly adhered to by the instructors and staff. There should be no sources of "inside information" regarding tests, evaluations, or techniques; all recruits should have equal access to any useful knowledge. Evaluation procedures should be set up in advance, and appropriate forms designed to document each evaluation. To compensate for the subjectivity of evaluations, instructors should be trained in how to identify and reduce evaluator bias.
Ongoing training for incumbent firefighters
Fire departments should have a comprehensive overall plan in place for their training. Input for this plan should come from all levels of the department. Since effective training for any occupation starts by assessing the desired outcomes, officers should be asked to identify what they expect from their firefighters. A typical list might look something like this:
- The basics of safe, effective, efficient and consistent fireground and EMS operations.
- "People" skills, both within the crew and with the public: the ability to interact productively with people in crisis, to listen and communicate effectively, to manage and help resolve interpersonal conflicts, and an awareness of diversity issues within the department and the community.
- Knowledge of departmental policies, rules and regulations, and the way things really work within the department.
- The ability to interact efficiently with other agencies: police and other law enforcement departments, hospital emergency-room personnel, other city departments, other fire departments.
- Health and fitness maintenance: exercise, diet, stress management, biomechanically efficient and safe techniques for performing physical tasks.
Current training programs usually do not address all of these basic needs, and some of them are addressed only incompletely. A comparable list for officer training would reveal similar shortcomings in most departments' officer training programs.
Surveying firefighters about their training needs also provides valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the department's training system. Survey questions should ask about training needs and priorities. To be most effective, the survey should be confidential, and department members should be able to see some results from it afterwards.
Company officers should be responsible for providing training for their crews, based on lesson plans and other resources provided by the training staff. The training chief or manager must hold officers accountable for the quantity and quality of this training, and not allow training to happen on paper only. Multi-company training sessions should be held periodically. Individuals should also have the opportunity to train themselves by having access to training materials in the station or loaned from the training division. One firefighter suggested:
The training officer should be required to have lesson plans and job breakdown sheets for every drill, skill and maneuver we do, organized in a binder for all stations as well as in the training office. All slides, videos and other training materials should be made available to personnel by providing a list and giving the officers the free use of the materials for their crews. There should be more class time to review drills, and the instructors should demonstrate the skills prior to the drill. Drills should be informative and creative rather than punitive.
Good fire training creates a positive environment for new employees, improves the skills of current firefighters, and leads a fire department safely and progressively into the future. Bad fire training -- or none at all -- threatens the safety of all firefighters, reduces morale, particularly harms women firefighters' chances of success, and violates the department's prime directive to provide the best possible protection for the community it serves.