The instructor’s 7 deadly sins - tips for fire, rescue, EMS instructors

CarolinaFireJournal - By Joe Mancos AAS NREMT-P
By Joe Mancos AAS NREMT-P
07/05/2011 -
Have you ever been sitting in a class staring at your watch and the only thing you can think of is, “when is this going to be over?” or “just give the test so I can go home.” I think we all have. Believe it or not this is not the worst problem that students have. Some things we do as instructors actually put our students and the public we serve in danger after they leave our class. In all disciplines of training there are problems that we as instructors have the ability to change. Are you as an instructor doing the best you can by your students? image

Too often we depend on pre-made lesson plans, slide shows and videos and fail to do our own research or even fail to actually teach

I recently posed a question to 20 instructors from across the country with a wide range of experience in the fields of fire, rescue or EMS education. The question was, “What are we doing as instructors that hamstring our student’s success?” I received an overwhelming response with great insight on the topic. In this article I compiled the answers to the question and our collective thoughts into what we started to call “The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Safety Education.”

Please don’t think I am trying to point fingers at any one person, or group of people. The fact is the responses I received actually made me rethink the way I do a few things in my own classes and presentations. If you are a new instructor or one of us “old timers,” the responses I received and included in this article should give us some insight as to how we can make our programs better, make our students safer, and better serve the people in our communities we have promised to protect.

Forgetting the Seriousness of the Job

The first of the “Deadly Sins” was mentioned in almost every response I received. Fire, rescue and EMS instructors have a fun, exciting and rewarding job. One mistake we make is forgetting the responsibility we have as instructors. If we fail to teach the students the consequences are grave. We are actually putting our students, their crews and the public in danger.

For example, if a student gets burned on their next fire because you failed to properly teach the correct technique for donning their PPE, you have failed as an instructor. Remember your students are going to be on the street, in harm’s way, saving lives and property based on what YOU taught them.

Along these same lines we must never take for granted that just because some students are volunteers, that they will see any fewer serious fire, rescue or EMS calls. The only difference we should see between volunteers and career professionals it the fact one group gets paid for their work and the other group does not. Some instructors don’t give the same level of instruction to a class full of volunteers as they would a class full of career firefighters. If one group gets better training than the other, it is our fault as instructors.


Some would argue that this fits into the above category, but I feel this is an entirely separate sin. This sin can make us not only a boring instructor but also a dangerous one. We have seen both new instructors and some of the ones that have been around awhile become very familiar with a subject and think, “oh yeah, I got this,” to the point that they don’t study up on a subject before giving a lecture or teaching a class. This can lead to a few problems. The first problem is that the technology may have changed since you learned this skill or subject even a short time ago. If you are teaching outdated material you are guilty of being complacent.

Another problem we may run into is just going through the motions in a class. We get so comfortable that we start to cut corners. Too often we depend on pre-made lesson plans, slide shows and videos and fail to do our own research or even fail to actually teach. Even if you prepared the lesson plan, and visuals, look over it and study before the day of the class to “brush up” on the subject as we are all human and tend to forget things and make mistakes.

I think this is a good place to discuss “death by power point” also. Teaching tools such as PowerPoint and other slide show generating software on the market have made the educator’s job much easier than that of days gone by, but we have also been lulled into complacency when preparing for a lecture based class. I have two quotes from a well known EMS educator, Randy Kerns, which got my attention on this subject, the first is: “PowerPoint is there to help you, not be the whole show. I can read, don’t read the slides to me! Paragraphs should NEVER be on a PowerPoint slide unless it is a direct quote and you are going to paraphrase the message.”

Another point that he made is about being complacent in preparing for a lecture on a subject that you may be very well versed in but didn’t do the work before the presentation or class. “If the actual presentation is the first time you have seen the slides it will be a long painful class for all involved.”


As an instructor you are not expected to know everything there is to know about everything. You are however held to a high standard in the eyes of your students. Know the material you are teaching inside and out. If you demonstrate a skill in a class, know how to do it yourself. If you don’t know how to do the skill, don’t teach the class. I know this sounds harsh, but are you doing anyone any favors by leaving the students lost, confused and ill prepared to meet the rigors and hazards of the job?

If you are asked a question during a class, try your best to answer it, call subject matter experts, and look it up in a manual or reference material. You are not incompetent for not knowing everything, but you are if you try to brush it off, or worse yet, make up an answer or try to “BS” your way through it. A very wise instructor once told me while on a trip out of the country teaching, “All fire, rescue and EMS folks have a pretty good nose for “BS,” so if asked a question you don’t know the answer to, say you don’t know.” If you try to bluff your way through a lecture or skill, rest assured that most fire, rescue or EMS students will “call you out” on this.

The Good Ol’ Boy or Buddy Sin

I have always heard that it’s not what you know, but it’s who you know. This has absolutely no place in fire, rescue or EMS education. We have all heard of the instructors that have overlooked that “buddy” that cannot pass a practical exam, but what they have really done is put their buddy or the student they like in danger, or let them become a danger to the public, because they are a “good ol’ boy or girl.”

Again we need to remember that your students are going to be out there doing what YOU taught them. If a student is allowed to pass a class or skill station and is not proficient in the skill or lesson, they will not be able to perform that skill on the job. If you are turning out students that cannot perform the skills on the job, your reputation as an instructor will reflect that. Instructors are often heard complaining at the quality of students; maybe we should look closely at our own practices in the classroom or training ground.

The Sin of Too Many War Stories

I am going to step on my own toes with this one. I, like a few other instructors who have been in Emergency Services for more than a year or two am guilty of telling war stories in class. The subject matter experts that were queried mostly agree that war stories are not a bad thing if they are short, to the point, and actually have a lesson learned that is relevant to the lesson being covered. They are best if they are presented in the form of a case study with “lessons learned” following. My feeling on the subject of war stories as a frequent student is, “I didn’t come to the class to learn how good of a medic, firefighter or rescue guru you are, teach me how to be one.


In the fire and rescue world there are set ways of doing things — we are taught and drilled methods of fire attack, rescue methods and patient care. One sin we continue to commit is the sin of thinking that the way we do things is the only way that is correct. Always remember that there are many good instructors out there, and there are almost as many methods. In many instances we need to know more than one way to complete a task. I’m not saying that a Rescuer should make things up as they go along, but we need to be able to provide the student with a “plan B.”

If you only know one way to displace a dash while performing at a automobile extrication incident what do you do if that method fails? The same can be said for rope rescue or firefighting techniques. It should be explained that methods chosen should be proven, approved and safe methods, but “there is usually more than one way to skin a cat.”

The Sin of Failing to Set the Example

At some time or another most instructors are guilty of this sin. We should set the example on the training ground of how we would like to see things done in the field. We should not start them out with bad or dangerous habits, they will learn them soon enough. Just because “this is how we do it in the field” doesn’t make it right. Do not compromise when it comes to safety; wear the appropriate PPE for the skill, take time to tie the safety knot when appropriate. If you fail to practice what you preach your students will either follow your bad or dangerous example, or your actions will hurt your credibility as an instructor.

Other bad examples can be in the classroom, also. Today’s classroom is very diverse, understand cultural differences, watch your stories, videos and side bar “banter.” No one can learn if they are not comfortable or if they have lost total respect for the instructor. Be careful how comfortable you are in the classroom with open or off topic conversation.

I know there are more than seven sins we as instructors commit but I think that if we strive to remain professional at all times, try to keep our egos in check and remember that to be a good instructor we must continue to be an active student, we can learn from our own mistakes as well as from the wisdom of our colleagues and those who have gone before us.

Joe Mancos has over 20 years in Emergency Services. He is the Assistant EMS Chief and Quality/Education Coordinator for Moore County Public Safety in NC. He is a member of the Moore Co. Special Operation Team, A Captain with Pinebluff Fire and volunteers with Aberdeen Rescue. Mancos is an EMS, Fire and Rescue instructor. He serves on the Board of Directors for the NC Assoc. of Rescue and EMS. Along with Tommy McNeill, he is a cofounder of M&M Fire and Rescue Training Services. He can be reached at
Comments & Ratings

  2/19/2012 11:07:28 AM

New Comment 
Interesting post, and I agree in the ctxneot.. makes me feel lucky as our instructor is 55 and he is more flexible, faster and fitter than I am and I am in my mid twenties and in good shape, if I do say so myself.. haha.. but I believe it would bother me if he was out of shape.. Regarding the taking breaks' thing.. One way we keep that down in our club, is for one, we usually get about one 1-2 minute break during the whole class, where we can do whatever.. here and there there may be a 10 second break between drills or a moment while a technique is explained.. beyond that, what we'd mostly do, is for example if we'd been doing kicking drills, our break would be tap-sparring with our hands or blocking drills for a minute basically chill a legs a bit but work the upper-body..Also stretching we'll often do instead of a break.. I quite like this as it keeps the heart-rate up for longer periods and you fit more random things into class if feels quite creative, I'm sure.. haha basically, no bigger-official breaks until about 40-50 minutes have passed.. This is of course within the ctxneot of a 2hour lesson.Ofcourse, I do believe the trainer, which ours does, should monitor the students and makes sure he's not overdoing it.. if a proper break is needed, it must be given.. but his idea is just to keep us from cooling down too early..Thanks for the great post..Peace and respect from South Africa

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