Overhauling a training program: changing everything

CarolinaFireJournal - Douglas Cline
Douglas Cline
04/21/2013 -

A training program that is not comprehensive, effective and/or efficient must be changed! When you consider how events have impacted our operations in recent years, we as the fire service have taken on EMS, hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism, just to name a few. The need for training has always been prevalent but does this topic get the needed attention to detail? In talking with a lot of departments from small rural volunteer groups to large municipal departments this area seems to be the one that takes a back burner to most every other task in the fire service.


Within this decade there were 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives published by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. These initiatives were focused towards the comprehensive improvement and enhancement of safety throughout the fire service. It’s amazing to find just how many fire service personnel have not heard of these initiatives, National Firefighter Near-Miss nor have they participated in a Safety Stand down or a Safety Week after all this time. A question raised by one department training officer was “do these initiatives pertain to training?” The answer is YES. Below are the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives published by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. I have placed asterisks with the ones that are focused towards or on training.

  1. Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility. ****
  2. Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service. ****
  3. Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities. ****
  4. All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices. ****
  5. Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform. ****
  6. Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform. ****
  7. Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives. ****
  8. Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety. ****
  9. Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses. ****
  10. Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement. ****
  11. National standards for emergency response policies and procedures should be developed and championed. ****
  12. National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed. ****
  13. Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.
  14. Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program. ****
  15. Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers. ****
  16. Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment. ****

What changes have occurred over the last five years in your department? Has the department changed from a predominately volunteer to paid, added career personnel? Have your training programs changed or been updated? Has your district risks changed? All of these issues should force us to take a look at the established program, if there is one present. In our increasingly litigious society, standards are changing more rapidly than some fire departments think they can keep up with. This is an unacceptable attitude!

Does someone in the command staff or department have the time to pick up one of the trade journals and look at what is happening to other organizations and how they are adapting? Ever heard of the internet, facebook, Tweeter, professional organizations (i.e. International Society of Fire Service Instructors, International Association of Fire chiefs, International Association of Fire Fighters, etc.)? Is the old statement “we have done it this way for 20 years and it works ... so why do we need to change” still the main words out of veteran firefighter’s mouths? If so, your department needs to be focused on overhauling the training program.

The Overhaul

Cultural Change for a Safer Fire Service — it starts with TRAINING! The first step is looking at what is already in place in your department. If someone has developed something and it is seems to be working, then maybe all it needs is a little tweak. But remember there is always room for improvement. If it is not working, more often than not, it is because one of the previously mentioned issues has taken place. Answer the following questions:

  • When are we training? (Frequency)
  • What are we training on? (Realistic or cool guy stuff)
  • Are we training to current standards and best practices?
  • Are there problems such as boredom or attendance issues?
  • Do we have instructors who are qualified and competent?

More than likely you will be surprised at the answers you come up with to those five simple questions. Now that we know what is or is not happening in or with the department’s training, it is time to hit the streets. By hitting the streets, I mean talking to the people who are on the front lines. Anyone can sit behind a desk, at a computer and dream up a schedule on paper that looks good at first glance. The best sources of information are our firefighters and front line officers. They have some legitimate ideas and experience the problems first hand. By doing this and finding out what is on their minds you need to find a way to incorporate those issues and/or ideas into the new program for buy in and ownership which will increase their support for the program. That will go a long way to helping change attitudes later.

Secondly look at the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and see how you can make these challenges come to fruition within your department. These initiatives provide the substantial ground work for helping overhaul your training program. Next look at the fire service community. Yes, there is a fire service world outside your department, area and state. Find out what everyone else in the world is doing for training. Most departments that are progressive will be more than willing to share the information on programs they have. Lastly begin the grueling task of changing attitudes and managing transition. This task will be educational within itself.

As you begin to overhaul the program you will most likely meet a strong opposition by some of your personnel and will be welcomed with open arms by others. Most individuals will give push back when it comes to change. Before you begin the task of making a lot of change, I would suggest a great book “Managing Transitions Making the Most of Change” by William Bridges. This will help you understand the anatomy of change in human beings and give you some outstanding tools to utilize to make this process work smoothly for the greater good of the organization.

Next let’s test them, both written and practical testing. Obviously, written examinations test the individual’s didactic knowledge and comprehension. When you are out on the streets you will be shocked to see how many firefighters have not picked up the books since the academy. A no notice or pop quiz, if you will, can lead you to areas that have been overlooked or forgotten because the subject is not the hot topic. Don’t put too much into the raw scores, how well could you expect someone to perform on a test over such a broad base of subjects without any preparation? Instead look for patterns. High numbers of people missing the same question should be one of the first items we look at.

Once we sort out areas that need further attention look at the answers they gave. This could be something as simple as terminology changes or it could be that seldom used subject that we need to go back and refresh our minds because we as an organization focused on other issues that were the buzz or hot topic.

Practical evaluations should be at a company level. Before starting, it would behoove you to talk to the officers of that company. They may have already identified a weakness and be taking steps to correct it. Start small with skills that we all were evaluated on at the end of our academy. If we are certified as firefighters, at some point we had to be able to do those skills and they form the root that we base everything else on. Later when the program advances and expands, we can ramp up the scale and complexity of drills.

When test results, meetings, and looking into the magic eight ball are done we have to take the information we have gathered and apply it. This is where the assignment definitely becomes more than a one-man job! Some departments may have a committee or an entire division assigned to training. More often than not, smaller fire departments put this load on a single officer or instructor. Do not be afraid to reach out and connect with those “gifted” individuals you met on the streets; you might just identify a future instructor or two. Someone has to be the point man, so remember to lead from the front. A ranking officer helps in our paramilitary organization because eventually we all will face problems or need to sell the information to the command staff that develops policies and procedures.

Make a schedule for a year, broken down into quarters. This breakdown adds flexibility, as we know things change in our chosen profession; new equipment comes into play, or we add yet another type of service. By doing this it allows us to have a plan but yet keep it flexible. You have to plan out your weekly training sessions and drills to meet NFPA 1001, 1002 and 1021 standards. Additionally plan a special large and more complex multi-company drill once a quarter.

Now the tricky part is the balancing act. The organization must devote equal shares to all the disciplines we dwell in. EMS is a factor for most of us, so include time for continuing education that is required for providers. Hazmat will not be going away. We need officer training and the list can go on for some departments. The best resources are NFPA standards, ISO rating requirements and state mandates for determining frequency for each discipline.

Weekly or company drills need to be small yet potent packages. Develop these drills small enough to not eat up too much of our already thinly stretched time allotment. We still only have 24 hours in a day and multiple other issues competing for our time. A potent package consists of the information provided being current, meaningful and accurate. Some items to remember are getting companies back in service and in district as soon as possible. Although training is as important as anything, we can’t forget about the real world mission that is always lurking ahead. By focusing on specific objectives, NFPA 1421, we can meet nationally accepted job performance requirements/objectives and still be within time frames.

Identify your instructors early! Ultimately the training of our personnel falls under the company officers realm of responsibility but there is nothing written anywhere that they have to teach every class or drill. They should have the flexibility to use their personnel’s expertise. By virtue of personnel being involved as an instructor may just provide those officers with an opportunity to spur the development of the rest of the company. The earlier we get them on board and informed about the workings of the program the more time they have to prepare. We also get a chance to get the program tweaked and tested before we sell it to the people that set our policies.

Now we are ready to take our new plan to the decision making body. We can show why we need to change and what we need to change. Most importantly, we have a plan ready and not just a problem to present. Be ready to accept some criticism, hopefully it is constructive. Also be prepared to explain the changes, sometimes a simple referral to one of the previously mentioned standards will suffice. Other times the cold hard truth is that when you were talking to the command officers about these changes a brick wall appear because that would mean change. Change would mean a disturbing trend is occurring and they want to stop it for fear of change. So potentially you could get a lot of the same old song and dance about how we have always “done it” here and beat down. Expect to have to make changes, (let’s face it the first draft version rarely gets through) go back and make them, just don’t let that distract your overall focus. Other words disguise it to make the oppressors think it is their idea and it was a good one.

Once the governing body has signed off on the plan it is time to take it to the people. This could very well be the hardest part. The worst case is the change being perceived as punishment or the “Shotgun Affect” on the entire department for a few individuals’ short falls. As with any standard or policy, there should be some sort of looming discipline for failure to comply but forcing training on people historically does not survive the long term nor does it truly enhance operational capabilities. The company officers will once again be a useful asset. They are the ones that will be in the best position to aid in the acceptance of the new program. Provide them with the same information and utilize the same tactics you used to sell the program to the administration. Statistics from evaluations, applicable standards, and requirements that you used to develop the program can speak volumes when one of the major issues is a lack of knowledge or understanding of the continued requirements along with “I remember you talking with me about this very issue and I used your ideas.” If you are still meeting resistance to the change, appeal to the mission, safety and personal pride.

Now that the program is running don’t forget quality assurance. It is not just for EMS calls. Have the participants evaluate everything from instructors to audio/visual materials. In a prominent area, post the program’s goals so everyone can see what the organization is trying to accomplish and keep it updated. Keep evaluating and re-evaluating the program, adjust as necessary, and once the basic core skills improve take the program to the next level. Ideally, the program should expand and grow in concert with the department. Remember that it is important to do Post Incident Analysis and After Action Reports not only on designated incidents but on training as well. This is where you can develop a road map for your program.

The time to realize that changes need to be made is not on the scene of an emergency or when someone gets hurt, dies, sued or loses a certification because of failure to meet training requirements. Don’t train ‘till you get it right, train ‘till you can’t get it wrong!

Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Cline, a former Fire Chief, is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI.
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