Practice Makes (Almost) Perfect

Training is an essential part of every police, fire, rescue, and EMS department throughout the country. Incident command, disaster scenarios, active shooter response, fire response, medical response — all require practice to master skills and maintain proficiency. It is impossible to achieve perfection, but consistent, high-quality, training will help minimize mistakes and maximize performance.


Moulage wound on arm adds realism to medical training.

The role of a trainer is multi-faceted. A trainer is a teacher, a counselor, a sage advice giver and someone that rookies and veterans alike can look to for guidance. The job of a trainer is to keep their agency in a high state of readiness, filled with the knowledge and skills that it takes in the emergency response field. The training profession is demanding — trainers are the first to arrive and the last to leave for the day. Trainers maintain equipment, set up the classroom and then clean everything up at the end of the session.

Trainers not only have to pass on the knowledge that they have acquired, but they must also be life-long learners themselves, willing to spend hours in the classroom or conducting research on best practices. Many times, especially in small departments, the role of trainer is just one of the many roles that the same person fills. This can make it difficult to dedicate enough time to expand the trainer’s personal knowledge base, but making that time is crucial to the trainer’s, and ultimately the entire agency’s success.  

How Can Trainers Get What They Want?

In a trainer’s eyes, there is never such a thing as too much training. However, budgets and department chiefs probably say otherwise. Trainers face a daunting task in the face of budget cuts and manpower issues; therefore, trainers must find a way to make training meaningful, yet cost-effective. As a trainer, you must find a way to achieve your training objectives while satisfying the constraints that are placed upon you. Here are some tips to help you do that:

Secure buy-in from your department administration (chiefs, captains, lieutenants, etc.) so that everyone views training as a priority. Try to get your administration to actively participate in training exercises, so that the entire department sees the value. It is disheartening to trainers and front-line personnel alike to never see administrators participate in training. Administrative personnel do not have to attend every training session, but their participation in at least a few throughout the year can boost morale, and will allow the entire department to take training more seriously and not view it as a burden or waste of time.

Train consistently on a regular schedule throughout the year. Planning is much easier for all involved to have a regular training schedule. Administrators can also block off training time on their schedules if there is plenty of advanced notice. Trainer should also send regular reminders about training to ensure full participation.

Extrication training on a vehicle that was donated by a scrap yard provides a free way to conduct practical, hands on training.

Keep training current. While there is a large block of training that must be dedicated to maintaining credentials and certifications, there is still time to train for current trends, new equipment, new methodology, etc. Routine training, required on a regular basis to maintain certification, should be refreshed on a periodic basis to keep the training pertinent and interesting.

Train on shifts other than the day shift. Training occasionally on evenings, midnights or weekends will provide more flexibility for front-line personnel, by actually training on the shift they work, and will reduce overtime. It is much cheaper to pay training staff overtime than to pay half or more of departmental personnel overtime (or comp time) for training. Training on other shifts also allows the trainer to see the conditions and nuances of each shift, and allows some training to be tailored to that specific environment.

How Can I Make Training More Valuable?

Trainers must be flexible in the way training is delivered. Adult learners vary widely in the way in which they learn best. Some are auditory learners, others visual, still others are kinesthetic learners. Trainers should consider using a variety of methods to deliver training such as: PowerPoint presentations, diagrams, lectures, videos and hands-on training. By delivering training in a variety of formats, trainers can help ensure that all types of learners are engaged and absorb the information that they need to.

Trainers should consider the addition of an online training library. Technology is an everyday reality in today’s workforce. Trainers should take advantage of technology to make training topics available for reference with the click of a button. Materials such as PowerPoint presentations, videos, Word documents, spreadsheets, pictures, and more can be placed in an online repository for easy access when there is downtime on a shift or when remediation is required. Online training also easily allows the trainer to track the progress of each student.

Trainers should never allow one officer or a small group to “hijack” training sessions. Trainers should quickly recognize and identify when a specific person or group is trying to dominate the training session or discussion. Trainers should control the dialogue and limit commentary to keep the training focused and on track.

Example of PowerPoint training that can be delivered in person or online.

It is also up to the trainer to limit horseplay so that the training is taken seriously. A sense of humor is almost a prerequisite to working in the emergency response field. Many personnel use humor to deflect from the trauma and human suffering that they respond to on a regular basis. However, there is a time and place for humor. It is the trainer’s responsibility to maintain seriousness during training scenarios. Joking around is appropriate between scenarios or during breaks, but it can be very disruptive during training, especially when training time is limited.

The use of training aids and tools adds realism to any training scenario. Nothing gets the heart rate up and the adrenaline pumping like a realistic training scenario. For instance, in armed response training, the use of starter pistols and simunition weapons ramps up training to a level that the training feels real. That should be the goal of every training program — to make a real event feel like “just another day at the office.”

A Few Other Training Tips

As a trainer, do not assume that people are familiar with the basics. It is better to bore your veteran officers than to assume that everyone knows what is being discussed. Use the building block theory — train one skill until your student masters it before you add another component. Train to the point of failure, then back up, slow down and train to success. Breaking training down into small components will build muscle-memory and increase retention. Even veteran personnel can benefit from getting back to the basics.

Active shooter response training involving simunition non-lethal force on force training.

Train to policy/procedures to make sure that current practices work, then correct any deficiencies or discrepancies found. The only way to ensure that policy and/or procedure is sound is to put it to the test. Policy and procedure manuals cannot be static documents, but rather, they must evolve over time. It is part of the trainer’s job to ensure that policy and procedure reflect the current practices of the job and that training reflects policy and procedure.

Trainers should allow some training time for topics that are not part of the everyday agency routine. Topics such as how to notify the community of an incident, staging areas to be used during a major incident, evacuation and shelter, and reunification plans should be practiced on occasion so that a major incident is handled more smoothly and efficiently.

Keep training focused. Do not allow training sessions to wander outside of the design parameters. Pre-planning each session is a must to ensure that there is not a lot of down time between sessions or scenarios. Too much down time can be counterproductive and detracts from the overall training mission.

Trainers are forced to simulate some activities to prevent injury, but those topics should not be ignored.  Trainers must talk through what should be done without incurring injury. If the training topic/skill set is crucial, trainers should design sessions to lessen the risk of injury to the best of their ability. There are many facets of police, fire, rescue, and EMS jobs that are inherently dangerous. Firefighters must practice putting out fires. Police officers must practice building searches and serving high risk warrants. Rescue personnel must practice swift water rescue. For those aspects of the job, trainers must do their best to prepare personnel for the dangerous tasks while limiting the risk that departments incur from the training.


Emergency response is a complex endeavor that requires a great deal of knowledge and skill. When faced with life or death situations, first responders must trust their skills and training to ensure the best possible outcome. Trainers are faced with the daunting task of teaching new skills, maintaining skill proficiency, making training realistic, and staying current with training trends — all while facing budget and manpower constraints. Trainers must find a way to make training relevant and meaningful while engaging a wide variety of learning styles. A trainer’s job is essential to the success of every emergency response agency. Training cannot be overlooked and the value cannot be overstated.

Kevin Davis has over 22 years’ experience in the security industry. Kevin earned a B.A. from Harding University and a Juris Doctorate from the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law. He is Assistant Director of Public Safety at Harding University. Kevin is an NRA Law Enforcement Handgun, Shotgun, and Patrol Rifle Instructor as well as a FEMA Active Shooter Response Instructor. He is also a CPR, medical response, and defensive tactics instructor.

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