Volunteer Firefighters: Can there be too much training?

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ron Cheves
By Ron Cheves
10/05/2012 -

Are we losing volunteer firefighters because we are demanding too much training? If you talk to 20 different fire departments, you will hear 20 different requirements for training and 20 different number of hours required to meet the minimum set by the individual department.

Training hours are so very important, but should we be thinking more about the content and the type of training we are suggesting to our members? To offer more training hours on top of what is required is certainly needed, but how much is too much? I will agree that the 36-hour minimum required by the state of North Carolina will not even start to make you a firefighter. We are not talking about new recruit firefighters — the issue is retaining the members we have now and keeping them on the roster as an active member of the fire department. Not all members have to be firefighters. Many departments have support members that do several different things other than interior firefighting. Again, the state requires we have Traffic Personnel on the roster, how much fire and EMS training do those members need?


The Volunteer and Combination Section (VCOS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) had a National Summit in Washington, DC last March to support the future of volunteerism in the fire and EMS services. This project was designed to develop the blueprint for fire service leaders to help guarantee the long standing history of the volunteer firefighter and to examine the many new challenges that we face on a daily routine.

We should remember that over 70 percent of all fire departments in this country are fully volunteer, and over 90 percent still rely on some volunteer members, and the overall number of fighters has declined by more than 10 percent since the 1980s according to the United States Fire Administration (USFA).We need to continue to recruit and more importantly, retain the members we have now due to the fact it takes much time and money to train a firefighter to the level of FFI and FFII, and to be aware of the fact that most new members today only stay members an average of four to five years.

“Volunteering with your local fire department is a long-standing tradition that makes our country truly great,” says Chief Tim Wall, Chairman of the VCOS. “But today that tradition is at risk as communities grow larger and the citizens demand additional services. The individuals who volunteer struggle to manage their time while keeping a reasonable balance with all the other factors that make up their daily lives.”

During the summit in Washington there were nine major challenges that were brought to the group; among those were Capabilities and Competencies. This was to develop a national modular credentialing system to include training, certification, and recertification that is scalable and reciprocal among the U.S. and will be recognized by all stakeholder entities. Four major areas are:

  • Incremental approach to Training
  • National Reciprocity
  • Modular Leadership Training
  • Computer based self-paced training delivery methods

To learn more about this important initiative visit the VCOS website at www.vcos.org/training/vcos-summit.

We must be able to adapt to the new challenges that the fire service is faced with when it comes to training and the need for standards or code changes that will ultimately produce a safer and more functional fire service. We need not forget the fires are getting hotter and more dangerous, do your risk analysis. Remember Life Safety is THE most important function of our jobs and good training, education and prevention must continue to be the core of what we are all about. One concern is that we could be going overboard with those codes and training hour minimums. Sometime in August the West Virginia Fire Commission proposed changes to adopt over 90 NFPA standards to all fire departments and it seems to be safety driven. How safe would it be to reduce your staff in efforts to comply? I don’t think these people are looking at the whole picture, as every action causes some reaction, and that most of us will agree on the concept of better codes are the direction we all want to stride for, maybe we should be taking baby steps. We could all eat an elephant if we take little bites one at a time.

The concern is that most of the volunteer fire departments and some of the career will not be able to meet these standards. The fear of losing members on the volunteer side could mean the departments will have to close, and the cost associated with the increasing staff and equipment to meet the code will mean less money spent in other areas.

One chief in the county said, “If they want to eliminate volunteer fire departments, why don’t they just do it instead of bleeding us to death?” He said he believes the Fire Commission is “living in an alternate universe.”

If we continue to demand more and better training for our members, especially the new ones, we need to make certain that the requirements are attainable.

Think just a minute about what you might be asking your volunteers to do. How many members do you have that are over 60 years old, and what jobs they are currently engaged in? If you have drivers only on your department, do you think they need training on Hazmat, Water-Rescue, Structural Firefighting, Special Ops, or any other training that will never be involved with the job description? Train them on being the best driver they can be and be done.

Don’t think that I am suggesting dumbing down the fire service; these are real issues that I hear over and over in my travels while delivering the educational courses with the VCOS/IAFC. We know the 80-20 rule still exist in most departments. That is 20 percent of the members will do 80 percent of the training and respond to 80 percent of the calls. Don’t stop them from doing all they want, and continue to have plenty of good training available to the ones that want it. The balance is to find what works for you and your department. Make certain you are still meeting your core mission and you are doing it in a safe and productive manner. If you have 100-hour training standards and you are not losing volunteers, you are making all your calls, and you continue to recruit new members, then don’t change a thing — in fact call me, I need to see how you are doing it.

We should not make training difficult for the members to achieve. Remember eating that elephant—it is much easier to do if we take little bites. We all want to have the best trained firefighters, but making it too difficult for them will probably result in burnout. Consider the credentialing system and what the member is bringing to your department. Take in account where the member has come from and perform a type of competencies evaluation. Most states training standards are not reciprocal and it forces firefighters to start completely over when they move from state to state.

Today’s younger members are asking more questions and want to know why certain decisions are made and most of the time we tell them that is the way it is in the fire service — we are a paramilitary organization and you should do what you are told. But, does it make sense that a firefighter that is trained as a FFII in North Carolina is not a firefighter in most other states and the process has to be started from the beginning.

I was in an officers meeting several years ago discussing new guidelines for our new EMT’s. One officer with less than five years of service and a fairly new EMT suggested our new EMTs go through an additional six month training “our way” before they could run EMS calls on their own. Understand these new EMTs had been certified by the state of North Carolina and this new officer was suggesting we need to train them “our way “ before we turn them loose on their own. It is this type of arrogance and ego that has caused many problems in too many departments across the country. Holding members back can only hurt the department. No one knows when they graduate the academy or complete the requirements to become certified where their career will take them, some become officers and some leave, which is what we are faced with.

Ron Cheves has 39 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency serices rising to the position of chief. He retired as chief of the Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department in Matthews, N.C. Cheves served Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department for over 27 years where he held every rank from firefighter to chief of the department. Cheves can be reached at 704-557-5781.
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