One size does not fit all when training


CarolinaFireJournal - By Joe Palmer
By Joe Palmer
01/10/2013 -

The rigidity that is so prevalent in our profession serves us well for continuity, historical preservation, and teaching the lessons learned of the fire service. I do not belittle that importance or seek to trade out experience for other tools or models. But the training of persons in our occupation and the professional world has changed and is changing daily. The tragedy of our current fire service generation very well could be the lack of flexibility and adaptability of our training delivery to ensure recruitment and retention of the next wave of competent and dedicated persons looking for a strong coherent occupation. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times — training is the reason we can’t get — qualified applicants, or volunteers or people in general.

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Whether we like it or not, social changes, social media, time constraints and opportunities have changed and for 20 years we have forced ourselves in to believing that if we build it, they will come. It “ain’t“ happening. The fact is, our rigidity and comfort levels with training content and delivery mechanisms have driven a wedge between our potential pool of candidates and our staffing needs — volunteer or paid. Call it generational gap, comfort level or lazy. I see a few things that we should state with frankness which may serve as a paradigm shift in our philosophy as it pertains to training:

  1. One size does not fit all. No matter what we build or create, we must incorporate flexibility of delivery with the user in mind. Learning styles. Time constraints. You name it. The student is at first our customer and then becomes our staff.
  2. One standard does not fit all. Creating a training standard or program must be position description driven. If the volunteer does not cook hot dogs at drill night, why should he be taught, for 60 hours, how to cook hot dogs just because we all did it? But if the firefighter is expected to perform a task, create a training standard for them. Why expect every person that enters our profession to immediately comply with a training regimen that took you and me years to accomplish?
  3. You CAN’T do more with less. When it comes to personnel staffing, less in the modern fire service means less output. Efficiency study is an admirable endeavor, but fundamentally we have weakened our staffing to the point that mentors, trainers, guides — call them what you will — do not exist any longer or exist so rarely that I ask the question “WHO is your candidate (rookie) learning from?” Less experience and less people equates to fewer lessons to pass on. The fire service needs adequate trainers in the stations in daily contact with the learner to give instant and constructive feedback and direction. We financially can’t hire dozens of paid instructors and evaluators, but we can empower and arm all department members. The value of mentoring is immeasurable. We are all training officers.
  4. Take the training to them. The availability of training at the fingertips and beckon call of the candidate is necessary. I apologize to those who profess candidate laziness or unwillingness but the program must be engaging and to do so must be handy.
  5. Make the training concise. Bottom line, don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours. Cut the fluff. Get down to it....
  6. Make the training modular. Step by step. Give me the history lesson early on when my appetite is whet with enthusiasm. Give me skills when I begin to explore. Give me tactics when I can demonstrate mastery. Don’t give it to me all at once. The load is more than the candidate needs and can grasp. This item is all about relevancy. Training will be passionately sought for its engaging characteristics when it is presented to the student that sees direct application to his or her situation. This approach starts building the candidates mental training reference files.
  7. The delivery mechanism must be current. If your course delivery was modeled in the 80s and the technology was from the 90s, you will immediately loose a student who is accustomed to getting the message from videos and sound bites.

Example 1: When was the last time you actually saw and listened to a one minute commercial? One minute only. It seems like an eternity to listen to some one try and sell you on something for that length of time. Fifteen seconds is about it. Like it or not, it is what we have become and what our students are accustomed to.

Example 2: Do you remember when you sat in grammar school and you had to help the teacher feed the 16mm film through the projector and felt like you were really cutting edge? Do you remember the sound when the film ran out or got off track? (flap-flap-flap/clickety-clickety-clickety respectively){no extra charge for sound effects} Guess what, that‘s the same noise that a student hears today from an instructor that gets in front of a classroom at eight p.m. and reads slides from a lesson plan and power point. Like it or not, we must invest in delivery for the modern learner.

Individualized attention cannot be replaced in delivery of manipulative skills, but cognitive skills must be presented at the student’s pace; with appropriate modes of delivery; be supplemented by training mentors and supporters; and then evaluated by skilled, experienced professionals. Resistance to this concept must beg to ask the instructor are you training the past or training the future? If you want the best in your recruit, train them like they are the best. Don’t show them the 16 mm film. Though, I always loved feeding that film through that winding pathway!

Joe Palmer currently serves as the Executive Director of the SC State Firefighters’ Association in Columbia SC. Previously he served for 14 years as the Fire Chief for the City of Newberry, SC, where he still lives with his family. Joe is a Past President of the Firefighters’ Association.
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