Questions to Consider When Evaluating Fire Instructors and Programs

Issue 5 and Volume 9.

Editor’s note: This month, Nozzlehead received two similar letters, so he answers them together.

Dear Nozzlehead: Our chief can be found all over the Internet. He does short training videos for a national online fire service publication. Our chief is very smart and knowledgeable, and these videos are a tremendous benefit to the fire service. The problem is he does not practice what he preaches. He does not share this knowledge with his own companies nor do we practice what he is preaching. Only the company that helps with the drill may benefit from the first-hand knowledge and experience. The other companies do not even know the filming is going on. If he truly believed in what he was preaching, he would take it upon himself, the leader of our organization, to ensure our remaining companies receive the training. The fact of the matter is he is the chief; he owes it to us, and he owes it to our citizens, to share the knowledge with his firefighters. Does he truly believe what he is selling or is he out for his own personal gain?
—Uninformed Back East

Dear Nozzlehead: Our former chief has training-related blogs and Facebook pages, and offers seminars where departments can have him come in and speak. He’s well-qualified in the subject he teaches. My concern is that he tries to portray that his classes, seminars and books are the only way to get the training. He also charges for a one-day class what it takes me to make in a month—and he gained all of this information while working for the department. Some of us want to confront him and remind him where he came from. Before we do anything, I want your opinion.
—Riding the Engine in the Land of 10,000 Lakes

Dear Uninformed and Hose-Rider,
Not happy with the boss, eh? Didn’t get the raise you wanted, huh? The old man is making more money than you are, hmmm? While these may or may not be valid reasons to slam-dunk the boss, your concerns are worth talking about.

First, let me answer each of you quickly, then I’ll yap about the bigger picture.

Uninformed: Your chief is taking advantage of your department and its members. The chief absolutely should be applying his knowledge to benefit your department. If it’s worth writing and making training videos about, it’s worth sharing. The perception—which is as good as reality—is that he’s working for his personal gain, be it financial, ego or both. Depending upon your state or local laws or policy, he may be in violation or at least be perceived to be in violation. Someone needs to approach the chief, explain the concern and get this realigned.

Hose Rider (Are you related to me?): There is no ONE source for good fire service education, training and information. There are numerous great sources. From blogs, to columns, websites, seminars, videos, podcasts and books, the field is loaded with really good information that helps us determine the way we need to operate—for our citizens and us. Anyone who claims that their site, books or programs exclusively are the only place to get information is self-serving and attempting to restrict you from getting all the information possible. In my opinion, that kind of self-promotional marketing is a valid reason to avoid what they’re selling.

It should be no secret that TRAINING is a main ingredient to helping the public on their worst day, while also minimizing firefighter injury and death. We must respond to every reported structure fire with the well-trained resources, staffing and command/control leadership to match the reported situation, with the ability to make the rescue—if the conditions indicate the need.

The most basic ingredients of fire service delivery (but the most important) are the ones who get the job done: our firefighters and our company officers. You can have a great chief, but without great company officers who carry out the mission with discipline, and firefighters getting the job done with equal respect and discipline, you are like a great football coach without a winning team.

That said, fire chiefs are responsible for who is training their firefighters and what they’re being taught. That is not to say that we shouldn’t read, listen and absorb it all, but in the end, the chief decides our general orders, policies and operational guidelines. In other words, just because you saw it on the Internet, heard it in a class or read it on a blog doesn’t mean you go out on your own and start doing what that guy said. WHAT!? I know, it’s crazy.

Numerous firefighters and fire officers offer training across the country; most are excellent programs taught by veteran firefighters with decades of fireground and command experience—instructors who fully understand the “big picture” when training firefighters. Unfortunately, there are also programs where those who are “instructing” have yet to ride the front seat of their rig, not to mention command a working incident at their department. Is that important? That’s up to you, Chief.

Here are a few questions you may want to apply when providing direction on WHO you want training your firefighters, and on WHAT:

  • What are the focus, goals and objectives of the training program?
  • Are they teaching your firefighters operations based upon recognized national standards?
  • Do they test and/or certify the attendees at the conclusion of the training?
  • Are they teaching what you want taught and performed on your fireground, or are they teaching what they do on their own fireground?
  • Are they asking you—before they arrive to do your training—for copies of your SOPs so that they can teach based upon your operational guidelines? Are they following that up with discussions with you to ensure they’re going to deliver what you expect?
  • Are all of the instructors certified and qualified to teach what they’re teaching?
  • Are they instructors at and for their own fire departments?
  • Can they provide references from other chiefs regarding their satisfaction with the program?
  • Who “owns” any problems that may occur during the training, be it firefighter injury, firefighter death, personnel matters or related issues?
  • Are all of the instructors “clean” and adhering to your fire department’s standard of substance-free operations?
  • Have all of the participating instructors successfully passed current criminal background checks? Big deal? Not until something goes wrong.

Some of the above questions may seem like a big stretch—and may be easy to ignore—until something goes wrong. Without question, there are some phenomenal programs led by some of the best fire instructors in the business, instructors who provide hands-on training that matches the needs of your department. Instructors who apply what they’re teaching each day at their own fire departments. However, there are also programs that teach firefighters techniques and tactics that may/may not work well where they operate, but would not work well in your community.

How do you know which programs to pick? Can you sit back, with confidence, knowing your personnel are receiving the best and most applicable training from the most qualified instructors? That’s up to you, but asking the questions couldn’t (or shouldn’t) hurt. A chief who won’t train their own firefighters as mentioned by Uninformed above, or an ex-chief who claims their way is the only game in town, are just two warning signs you may just want to pay attention to when sizing up your training and operational needs.

Sidebar – Worth Reading

Timing is everything. The two questions Nozzlehead addresses in this column relate to a new book recently released by PennWell entitled
Pass It On: What We Know … What We Want You to Know. This book is a collection of nearly 100 pieces, written by people whose lives have been deeply impacted by the fire service. Veteran chiefs, fire officers and firefighters share in more than 400 pages the incidents, lessons and recommendations that have helped mold them into who they are today.

Considering the questions to Nozzlehead this month, Pass It On will be of real value in helping us all understand “the bigger picture” in fire service operations, training, experience, leadership and the very hard life lessons that these writers have each personally experienced.

All royalties generated by Pass It On will be donated 50/50 to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Chief Ray Downey Charity Scholarship. Order here:
—FireRescue editors