Realistic Training and Setting Standards

Building the foundation of your fireground operations

Realistic, scenario based training sets the expectations of what will happen on your fireground.
(Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department photo)

By Kevyn Holdefer

In an officer series class not long ago, the instructor asked the class for a list of hot topics in the fire service to begin discussion. A wide variety of topics were listed, ranging from probationary firefighters to micromanaging to training–topics that have been argued and solved, as all the world’s problems often are, around the kitchen table or at the tailboard. Before long, opinions and arguments were being made, and the topic of training came up. Words like “safety” and “computer-based” started being tossed around and comments like “These stop watches during training evolutions need to go” began filling the room alarmingly. Surprisingly enough, the class was comprised of firefighters and lieutenants of varying age groups, service time, and department type.

Are the standards set so low that any training evolution that gets completed by the lowest ranking member at some time before lunch counts toward the company’s daily drill? Is any drill that is not prefaced with a safety walk-through or that does not have a safety line attached to it a reason to resort to computer-based and basic training ideas? The company I work with doesn’t agree and has created a training culture that has shown improvements in our personnel and other personnel who have participated.

Our training culture is built around a set of simple principles that is backed by an understanding and knowledge of equipment, tactics, and skills. It is a culture five years in the making, with countless attempts of trial and error, and is constantly being reviewed. It is in constant need of care and maintenance to provide the best and newest information and is adaptable. Most of all, it is a culture that believes in a realistic and hands-on approach to training.

Three Types of Drills

There are three types of drill: learning, assessment, and scenario based. As recent as probation was for myself, I remember some of the most frustrating parts about it. It wasn’t the cleaning or the firehouse expectations that bothered me; it was the confusion of when it was time to learn, time to be assessed, and time to treat the drill as a scenario. To combat this, it is important to organize and plan your drill prior to it happening and set that expectation.

For a learning drill, no times, competition, or previous knowledge (or minimal knowledge) should be expected of the trainee. For example, in an SCBA drill, points to be covered would include the parts of the SCBA, sticking points, important numbers, functions, emergency procedures, etc. It is important to note, also, that this would not all be completed in one single drill; multiple learning drills would occur prior to starting any further type of drills. Taking a trainee through the “wire box obstacle” of an SCBA course would be explained to the trainee that this IS NOT a scenario and is simply a drill with the goal of demonstrating the “sticking points” of your air pack  and your ability to focus and mitigate the issue. Following this drill would be the conversation of true procedures in an actual entrapment situations. Where are your wire cutters? How many pairs do you carry? Is the priority calling a Mayday and cutting over trying to manipulate the pack?

For the assessment, once a member has become proficient with the basics in skills equipment, members should be challenged on their skills and knowledge. Yearly rapid intervention team (RIT) training should not solely be placing the RIT pack on the kitchen table to explain the parts and operations of it, especially when your crew is made up of members with multiple years of service. To keep members engaged, the crew should be assessed, without review, on what they would know if the bells went off before drill. An example of this would be scheduling a RIT drill as usual in your training schedule but creating a drill where members would individually have to use the RIT pack in low- to no-visibility environments and mitigate a down firefighter air pack issue. Again, this is not a scenario; you are simply testing knowledge of the equipment (where parts are located and their uses) and the ability to perform skills like buddy breathing, transfilling, and replacing a down firefighter’s face piece without vision. Of course, any issues or concerns that arose during drill would be covered or reviewed after the assessment occurred.

Training should not only instruct but assess and test a firefighter’s thinking. (author photo)

Scenario-based drills must be realistic. Using multiple what-if’s in a single scenario doesn’t create a realistic scenario; it’s nothing but a monster being built in a firefighter’s head. A drill that includes a firefighter who fell through the floor, has a catastrophic air pack failure, multiple victims with a hoseline that bursts, followed by a multiple-vehicle crash on the fireground will not improve your members; it will only create chaos and confusion.  A simple way to combat this is to train, how most of the fire service has been built, on a single occurrence in our history or experience, whether that be fire service, department, or personal.

For example, creating a scenario-based RIT drill could start with researching a line-of-duty (LODD) death, recreating the circumstances surrounding that LODD, and allowing your crew to attempt the rescue. Recently at our firehouse, a RIT drill we created was a down firefighter in a basement under a light collapse of debris. Our crews were allowed to figure out how to reach the down firefighter without use of the stairs (as the stairs were compromised in the LODD we based it off of), solve the issue with the air pack of the down firefighter, and remove the down firefighter from the basement without the use of stairs. Following the drill, the LODD the drill was based from was reviewed to show the real possibility of the scenario happening and how we as a shift could learn from it.

This leads to me to my last point: Scenario-based drills are not linear. In a podcast, Firefighter Aaron Fields of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and lead instructor of the Nozzle Forward program said training like this should not read like a book. In a book, the story is already written; the beginning and end are set; and, if all goes according to the story, everyone in the end is successful. To that, a successful end every time should not always be the result. We learn from our failures just as much, if not more, than we learn from our successes. A drill should have a problem to be solved in which the firefighters should be able to “choose their own adventure” in attempting to solve it. Their success will lie in their skills, knowledge, and ability to apply those in a real-time scenario.

All Should Drill

All members participating in the drill should complete the evolution, starting with the senior member. Probably one of the most difficult to invoke, this principle as based around a few ideas. To start, the most senior member participating in the drill going first creates two major contributions toward building your least senior member. One, depending on the number of members participating, the least senior member has multiple views of how to complete the drill, the different ways of achieving completion, and what the expectation of his performance will be either now or in the future (based on his experience level) before having to attempt it himself. Two, by performing the same skill that is expected of them, the least senior member will build a trust that he is receiving knowledge and criticism from a credible source. Now more than ever, people are not trusting where their information is coming from. By standing over and dishing out criticism without backing it up with a performance and expectation of your own, the only thing you will build is a respect based off authority, rank, or seniority–and not ability/knowledge. This can create an atmosphere where an expectation of a newer member can be higher than what is expected of the members themselves.

Training together builds teamwork, confidence, and trust. (author photo)

If a member does not want to participate in a drill, as unfortunate as that statement is, that is his choice. In a training culture where members consistently are working toward being better at their jobs, members who chose to sit out for whatever reason (barring injury/illness or other special circumstance) will begin to create a reputation of being uninvolved and less credible source of information. Again, experience cannot be disregarded, but the balance of training and experience coupled with sharing those with the newer members on the training ground is what truly makes a senior member.

Timing and Competition

Setting time and creating competition are a training tool. This stems from the comment I spoke of earlier: “These stop watches during training evolutions need to go.” Why? Do I believe there is a right and wrong way of using time and competition during training? Absolutely. However, by adding time and/or competition to a drill, especially an assessment-type drill, the time creates a stress. This stress is the closest stress we can simulate to the stress felt on the fireground. Firefighters need to learn to perform their duties quickly and efficiently in a matter that does not affect the safety of themselves or others or the quality of the operation. The time itself can be used to measure personal success over time or in a competition style (against fellow firefighters) to induce added stress and camaraderie.

For example, a simple drill we use is a line deployment drill. This drill (in full PPE) includes pulling our skid load to a door on the firehouse, deploying the pack with proper flake, calling for water, donning face mask, checking seal, flushing nozzle, and clicking into the regulator. Participants’ times are then adjusted for any infractions to create good habits, things like not checking a seal on the face mask, any bare skin showing, yard breathing, not calling for water, appliances closed off during deployment, etc. All these infractions cause an added five seconds each to their time.

The major problem with using time and competition comes when the results are used to degrade, publicly punish, or humiliate members participating. The results themselves will speak to the members who performed poorly; sometimes self-felt humility is the best lesson learned.

Setting the Standard

This principle is the end goal. Whether that end goal is for your department or just your shift, what is going to be expected of your members when the time comes to perform? What will you expect of any new member who will join the ranks? These standards or minimum expectations can be set based on the averages of your training and can be used to gauge where your members are.

For example, we’ve found that in our skid load deployment drill, under the same controlled factors every time (50-foot stretch to door, open area flake, etc.), that our average time from back step to deployed on air and ready for fire attack is anywhere between 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, with a minimum expectation for our newest and greenest members being 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. That is expected of you if you want to be the nozzleman. It’s our standard, and it’s not just pen to paper. It’s expected and assessed multiple times a year by the members of our shift at our station. These standards, too, are subject to change as new ideas, training, and tactics evolve. Working toward having multiple set standards in all aspects of our job, it is our hope to be able to use that information in forming our future operations, tactics on the fireground, and training needs.

Creating and using this training culture have improved not only our skills, knowledge, and abilities but have created a democratic environment in our training as a shift. In this environment, the important factors to the cohesiveness of a shift, like buy-in and accountability of your members and yourself, have proven to show improvements in our fireground and firehouse operations, in our newest members, and in our shift.

Change, however, has and always will be like fighting an uphill battle in the fire service. I’d be lying to you if I were to say that our training culture hasn’t had and still has its obstacles from time to time. But I will say this: Surround yourself with likeminded individuals, set the standards that work for you, and you’ll find that other likeminded members will gravitate toward it.

Kevyn Holdefer has been a firefighter/paramedic with the Palos (IL) Fire Protection District for seven years and in the fire service for 10 years. He is a graduate of Indiana Smoke Diver Class 6 and a Fire Officer I/Instructor I. He is involved in training, SCBA, and public education.