Leadership, Training

From Transparencies to Smartboards

The Evolving Education of the Fire Service

By Stephen Rhine

Being an instructor in today’s fire service has never proven to be more difficult. As firefighters, we are in the business of preparing for the “what ifs.” Training and drilling have always been a supplement to hands-on experience when gaining knowledge. Generational gaps have caused us to learn to use different tactics when instructing. We, as trainers, need to understand how to relate to all our members. Ultimately, we have the same goals: save lives, extinguish the fire, protect    property, and return everyone safely from the alarm. However, how we achieve these goals may vary from firefighter to firefighter. Generational differences and learning disabilities are not our only obstacle when instructing. Both career and volunteer organizations provide their own unique challenges on our road to success. 

Whether you are a company officer, training coordinator, or senior member, there is no doubt that you have an evolving Rolodex of drills at your disposal. Selecting the correct drill to focus on at your training is just the beginning of the instruction process. Several other factors need to be included in your drill preparation. For example, when do you drill? Do you have a prescribed drill time, or can you conduct this drill while still on scene before leaving an alarm? Prior to leaving the scene of an alarm, I will stand with my company, and we will discuss, very briefly, what we would we have done at the scene if, in fact, it had been an actual fire. These small, intimate, impromptu drills will get everyone’s minds formulating and preparing for the next fire or emergency to which we respond.

Also, is this a departmentwide drill, or will you be instructing smaller groups on the company level? When new department procedures are introduced, you may need to hold several large PowerPoint®-driven lectures or computer-based video training. You may want a smaller, more intimate drill where you can instruct your company members on a new tactic you learned on how to operate with a portable ladder.

What is the learning style of your audience? Different generations have different styles of learning. Instructing the 60-year-old and the 20-year-old probationary member may require different methods. Today’s fire service will usually encompass four generations: Baby Boomers (55 to 73 years old), Generation X (40 to 54 years old), Generation Y or Millennials (25 to 39 years old), and Generation Z or iGen (7 to 24 years old). Understanding these generational differences and learning abilities will allow the instructor to tailor the message.

Having a learning disability may not restrict someone from joining a fire department.  Understanding that some of your audience may require special attention when learning the material is an added step in your presentation considerations.

What kind of delivery will you be using for your drill? The overuse of strictly PowerPoint presentations, sometimes referred to as “Death by PowerPoint,” is a common issue within the fire service. Sometimes this is the only way to educate the audience on specific guidelines and to confirm that the students are receiving accurate information. However, using audience interaction and providing shorter, more frequent breaks can assist with keeping the audience engaged. While educating smaller groups, such as on the company level, a simple group text or using a mobile group messaging app may prove useful. Establishing a private social media account dedicated to instruction can help to combat the issues of relating to most of our generational differences. While using Internet-based options, the instructor can distribute videos found online or create a small fact sheet of an incident. Having the capability of participant interaction will create an informative dialogue. These tactics may not appeal to all our members, so the need to print out the fact sheet or show the video on a screen still exists.

I am a big proponent of an on-scene training initiative. The dialogue that ensues at an impromptu company drill will only help create better firefighters. As the instructor, you may take more of a moderator role. Encouraging each member to contribute will help with the flow of the drill. 

What is the learning style of your audience? Different generations have different styles of learning. (pixabay)

Here is an easy guideline of how to conduct an on-scene drill: When an alarm has concluded and the apparatus are returning to in service, this is a perfect time for an on-scene drill. This drill should always include all members. Talking about the building you just entered or an odd structure across the street is a perfect impromptu preplan. Include a little something for each generation. Discuss the history and tradition of the building in hopes of sparking some wisdom from an older member about what occupied the structure years ago. Learning from our past will allow us to find out more about the building and maybe what alterations have been done over the years. Talking about the building construction can help with educating our younger members on both common and unique construction methods. Discussing how building materials have changed throughout the years and the dangers they pose to firefighters is a great teaching point.  Having this knowledge will allow all members to look for signs of instability when operating and alert others when recognizing signs of collapse. Discussing the presence of solar panels will help educate all the members on the issues we may encounter with a fire in the building. This knowledge is usually stronger with both probationary members and members attempting to attain a supervisory rank. The probationary members will have a basic understanding of hazards such as solar panels and should be given the opportunity to share their knowledge. Members who have a little more time on may be attempting to achieve a supervisory rank, which means they may have recently read an article or department manual regarding this type of construction addition.  These members’ analytical knowledge of the solar panels will significantly enhance the topic.  Working together at these drills and learning from each other will instill the importance of a team dynamic. A simple 20-minute drill, while returning to in service, can educate multiple generations at once and make everyone feel like they contributed to the overall success of their department. 

From the large department drill to an intimate company drill, knowing the material is only the first step of instruction. We, as educators of our craft, need to reach a broad range of students with different learning styles. We need to understand and relate the material to each generation in both career and volunteer departments. A senior member once told me, “The day I think I know everything about firefighting is the day I need to retire.” Firefighting is a very dynamic profession. New research and technological advancements require us as firefighters to continually reevaluate instructing techniques. Emergencies will always be there and will still be resolved. However, how effectively and safely they are approached and resolved is a direct result of our training.

Stephen Rhine is a 17-year veteran of and a lieutenant for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) assigned to Engine 287. He previously worked in Ladder 110 as a firefighter. Rhine is also a 25-year member of the Roslyn Highlands (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He is a New York State certified fire instructor and fire officer and is a member of the FDNY All Hazards Incident Management Team. He has a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University and is a graduate of the West Point Counterterrorism Leadership Graduate Program. He can be reached at [email protected]