Firefighters, which is most important? Training, education or experience?

CarolinaFireJournal - David Greene
David Greene
04/23/2012 -

Training, education and experience — which is more important? The importance of one over the other is a topic of debate. Let’s attempt to pull apart the interwoven components and see which one we can live without. In a business as unforgiving as the fire service, training is essential for survival. Training is, according to Mr. Webster, “the skill, knowledge, or experience acquired by one that trains.”


While we frequently hear about increasing or improving our knowledge, skills, and abilities, we don’t frequently hear about improving our experience in training. But that is what training is doing, providing you with an experience upon which you can base future decisions when given similar circumstances.

Consider this. I was once in charge of an automobile extrication on the interstate. Well into the extrication, a firefighter taps me on the shoulder and says look over there. When I turned my head about 100 degrees to the left, I saw a tornado descending from the clouds. Its path was perpendicular to the interstate and it appeared to be moving parallel and slightly away from the scene. Still, I told the firefighter, “Huh, well there’s something you don’t see every day.” I am a well versed and well trained incident manager but I don’t remember anyone dropping tornados on me during command simulation exercises. Because I had no frame of reference (or experience) for this tornado appearing at the scene, I had no idea what to do.

I thought of ordering everyone into the car with the patient but then thought under the car might be safer. Since there weren’t any ditches around, I simply said a silent prayer and watched the tornado slowly meander and briefly touch the ground and then climb back into the clouds.

Anytime you are faced with a decision or a situation, you subconsciously try to compare that situation to a similar one that you have experienced in the past. This is what makes experience so important. When you went through recruit firefighter training, you entered a burning building. The instructors did their best to simulate what an actual structure fire would be like while still using a controlled environment to provide for your safety. But unless your first actual fire involved half a bale of hay burning within a container inside a non-combustible building, I’m willing to bet that the experience you gained at your first actual structure fire was much more useful than any training fire you attended at the academy.

But make no mistake, experience is a hard teacher. As an anonymous writer once noted, “She gives you the test first and the lessons afterward.” This means that the more frames of reference or similar situations we have stored in our heads, the more efficient our decision making will be. As Admiral Ashleigh Burke, U.S. Navy once wrote, “In the heat of battle you don’t remember very much. You don’t think very fast. You act by instinct, which is really training. So you’ve got to be trained for battle so that you will react exactly the way you did in training.” This means we have to train using the same time compression, simulated stressors, and tornados as we might encounter out in the field.

Education provides us a foundation from which we continually learn, train and gain experience. Education is defined as the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process. For many, education begins in pre-school where we are taught basic communications and socializing skills as well as lifelong lessons such as sharing (and how important naps are sometimes).

Our primary school education consists of the first five to seven years of formal schooling. This is where we learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Our secondary schools typically prepare us for occupational decisions in life. Secondary schools mark the first time where we can make decisions on our curricula. Many continue to post-secondary or undergraduate schools. These can be universities or colleges at which all the decisions are made by the student to determine the curricula attended aside from the core requirements.

An increasing number of people are continuing to graduate schools in order to achieve a greater understanding of a specific field. I have frequently had discussions with people attending or considering attendance at an undergraduate or graduate school. There are a number of things to consider when considering enrolling. First, you should insure that the school offers an education, degree or certificate in the field you desire. Second, you should ensure that the school or institution is regionally accredited. It is really not a bad idea to look at what other institutions the accrediting agency has evaluated also.

We are experiencing great technological advances which allow for schools to be accessed in ways that they never have before. It is now possible to be in a class with people from all over the country while sitting in your own home or office. Educational institutions who have bashed the “online schools” in previous years have now found themselves pressed to make their content and classes available online as well in order to compete with the accessibility requirements of today’s working professional/student.

Be sure to check the requirements and stay committed. If I could offer a final word of advice it would be don’t wait. Many of us couldn’t wait to be done with school. But once we decided that going back to school was the right thing to do, a lot of time had passed. This meant that the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic we learned in primary school were even harder to recall. Nothing is impossible and no one has been out of school too long to consider returning. However, what will education get us?

Education will increase our knowledge base. More importantly, it will allow us the benefit of learning from others’ experiences. Someone once said, “Learn from other people’s mistakes. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Learning skills will still require a hands-on application of the educational knowledge, which is to say that you can’t just read about cutting open a roof to know how to do it properly. However, once you have learned how to do it properly through training, you can read about how NOT to open a roof or perhaps even how to do it in a safer, more efficient manner through continuing education.

Reading about every line of duty death and attempting to understand the circumstances is both beneficial and how we truly honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Moreover, the International Association of Fire Chiefs has established the Near Miss Reporting System in the last several years. In this system, we can read and be educated by a call where an incident almost caused an injury or death. What a novel idea! Learning from near misses is even more beneficial than learning from line of duty deaths and is certainly “cheaper” in terms of “cost.”

So to be sure, training, experience and education are equally important components of what enables us to improve our knowledge, skills and abilities. Consider trying to learn how to lay fire hose and calculate friction loss without ever having an educational foundation consisting of basic arithmetic. Also consider how difficult it would be to be educated on how a thermal imaging camera aids in search and rescue without ever having received training in interior structural firefighting or having ever been in (experienced) a structure fire.

Training, education, and experience don’t compete with each other but rather complement each other. We should all strive to gain all the value we can not only from every training and educational opportunity we are afforded but from our own and others’ experiences.

Be safe and do good!

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fi re service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certifi ed Executive Fire Offi cer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Offi cer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].
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