Between Alarms: October 2010
By Jesse Challoner
Imagine working with a crew that includes a not-so-new rookie … The day has been fairly slow, so your crew is training at the hall; you’re all working with the junior firefighter, running drills and evolutions. The junior member is practising tagging a hydrant and pulling a primary line from the rig.
By Jesse Challoner
Imagine working with a crew that includes a not-so-new rookie … The day has been fairly slow, so your crew is training at the hall; you’re all working with the junior firefighter, running drills and evolutions. The junior member is practising tagging a hydrant and pulling a primary line from the rig. Tagging the hydrant went smoothly, but unfortunately the new-ish firefighter is having a hard time getting the attack line stretched without making a mess of spaghetti at his feet. You can see disappointment in the eyes of the others looking on and you can detect a frustrated tone in the voices of the members who are working to correct the problem. As you watch the junior firefighter’s hands start to shake you wonder whose fault this is. Is it the junior firefighter’s fault for not knowing how to perform the task and not identifying the need to learn it? Is it the fault of the senior firefighter or mentor for not taking the time to properly train the new guy? Are the officers at fault for not ensuring the candidate was up to snuff? Or is everyone responsible for failing to outline certain skills that are required of every firefighter?
It seems the bread-and-butter skills are falling through the cracks. As these new members gain time on the job, we assume firefighters with a few months to a year or more of service know how to do whatever is asked of them. Inevitably, the time will come when the junior firefighter is tasked to perform and does not come through with the expected results. The first step to identify the issue on a larger scale. The root of this dilemma lies in accountability. What standardized training is offered to give members hands-on time to develop experience when performing? Is there a documentation system to show that a member has completed the tasks in training to an acceptable level? Ultimately, who is responsible for ensuring that members of all experience levels are proficient at the basics?
Potential candidates are usually completing NFPA certifications prior to being offered a position in a department. Most services also offer training, either in house or at an academy, for candidates to gain some practice. These are great opportunities to lay the foundation for developing the necessary skills but not all fire departments operate under the same SOPs/SOGs. Therefore, specialized training must be obtained on the floor, under the direction of more senior members and officers. There is certainly value in classroom training. From there, we must take the next step and provide hands-on practice. This will develop the tactile and muscle memory skills so tasks can be performed in real time at the fire scene, the correct way, the first time. Furthermore, this practical training should be standardized, ensuring that each candidate receives the same information relative to department SOPs/SOGs. After the practical evolutions are complete, the next step is to track the training gained through documentation.
To prevent new members from gaining skill A but not skill B, while the next group of recruits becomes familiar with skill C but misses out on B and doesn’t even hear about skill A, it is beneficial to develop a structured and standardized training package for each new member. By employing this tool, junior members will be aware of the expectations and senior members/officers will have a document to reference, outlining which skills are complete and which still need attention. Having a responsible member mentor candidates, watch them perform a skill, and then document the successful completion, provides accountability for both parties: the mentor for signing off on the skill and the candidate for being able to perform it. This system also helps candidates gain confidence. They are showing the crew that they are able to accomplish what they are tasked with, and at the same time, the crew develops trust because the junior
member is showing proficiency in carrying out assignments.
Putting a system in place that organizes training decreases the incidence of incomplete skill sets. Decreasing, however, is not synonymous with eliminating. We will still run into situations in which some personnel don’t know or can’t do what they should be able to. The question of who is accountable when a firefighter is unable to perform in the expected capacity can’t be answered by singling out individuals. Junior members certainly need to be aware of the holes in their skill sets and seek more training. With that in mind, other crew members should be meticulous in practical and theoretical exercise sessions, thereby identifying areas of weakness and capitalizing on areas of strength.
As we graduate to the more senior ranks it is our duty to pass on training and experience to new members. We must never chastise someone for not knowing; it’s better that we accept the shortcoming and correct the deficiency professionally, rather than creating an environment in which candidates don’t want to train. Junior members will have to perform without direct supervision at some point, and we have the opportunity to secure their success. We should never assume that someone else will step up and fill in the gaps; we have the obligation to bridge those gaps ourselves.
New members require hands-on practice in various areas, especially the basic tasks. By implementing a system of training with structure and standardization, we can be sure that when the time comes to tag a hydrant or stretch a line, everyone on the crew will be able to do so without thinking twice. When we are able to get back to the basics of training with new members, the path to proficiency is paved with solid groundwork.
Jesse Challoner is a firefighter/paramedic with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta and an instructor at the Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org