By Ed Brouwer
Lately I’ve been hearing the term “old school” said in a manner depicting out-dated ideas or relating to ideas of little value. I know some of us in the fire service resist change, having become accustomed to a certain way of doing things. And as much as we need to realize that a new way of doing things is not necessarily wrong, the young guns coming up the trail behind us need to see that just because a method of doing something is old, it may not need fixing.
One area in which I remain old school is in how I reward those who are enrolled in our training program. Each member of our department is given an in-house training certificate in a frame to hang on our training-room wall; we make a big deal about this and display the framed certificates with pride.
These certificates were custom designed on our computer and printed on card stock. Each one includes the following statement: The Training Division of the GFD awards this certificate to (firefighter’s name). Underneath this it says; Designating that the firefighter is enrolled in the GFR Training Program for EXTERIOR OPERATIONS LEVEL FIGHTER and has been successful in meeting the B.C. minimum training standard according to the Playbook for subjects indicated by the attached seals.
The certificates are signed by both of our training officers. Along the sides and bottom are 15 subject titles, with places to attach stickers (3/4-inch circle) indicating successful completion. Stickers were purchased at Staples. The topics are: PPE; fire behaviour; ladders; ropes and knots; water supply; fire streams; SCBA; communications; hazmat awareness; fire streams; fire hoses; building construction; ventilation; safety; rehabilitation; fire appliances.
I understand the new way of doing things is that everyone who participates in the training gets acknowledgement for showing up. Sorry that doesn’t fly with me. Only those students who receive a passing grade of 75 per cent are awarded stickers.
Our training program is customized to meet our department’s needs while still meeting all the NFPA 1001 firefighter training requirements. Following the BC Playbook, each subject has a set of exams and skill evaluations.
If you set the bar high and reward those who work hard to reach it, you end up with a much better outcome. Setting a bar means making a standard or level that people will try to meet. As new members join into the training program, they notice how hard our veteran members are working. Most newbies jump on board with our pursuit of excellence.
The other thing I did to improve our training was get rid of answer keys. I understand the simplicity of using HB pencils and a bubble sheet. However, because I read each question and check the chosen answer, I have discovered many errors in the exam key (three wrong answers out of 20 questions). Had I just used the answer key as a template checking for coloured in A, B, C, or Ds, I would have missed them.
My old-school method allows me to show each student which questions he or she got wrong. This then becomes an opportunity for one-on-one instruction, which is invaluable in my eyes. Personally, I was never satisfied in knowing I got 85 per cent of the exam right; I wanted to know which 15 per cent I got wrong.
Using an Excel program, I designed spreadsheets to track each student; the spreadsheet also provides the all-important class average. Although 75 per cent is a pass, our class average is 96 per cent. If a drastic change in the marks of one or more students is noticed, I look for a possible reason – perhaps I was unclear in my presentation of the training subject and that can be addressed at the next practice. A big drop in a member’s mark can also be indicative of a change in his or her personal life. This may or may not require follow up.
Some of our members don’t do well with exams; others don’t comprehend what they read. I treat each student individually and will go out of my way to be sure each student acquires an understanding of the topic.
Some things don’t really mean that much in the long run. For example, one of our members had a hard time describing a gated wye, yet he certainly knows what to get if asked for one. He just got hung up with the exam answer: two 1 ½-inch male threads and one 2 ½-inch female end. No big deal in my book, I try not to sweat the small stuff.
Some of your students have been out of school for 30 years. Be mindful of the fact they are volunteers and most have worked all day and are after wolfing down some supper, sitting in your class more ready to relax than to write an exam.
Please keep in mind that your purpose in the year ahead is to get your members to understand fire fighting. Think about the adage I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand. When I discover members struggling with the book learning, I try to get them to “do”, usually one-to-one, hands-on, rather than addressing the individual in a group setting.
Looking at the certificates lining the wall also gives me a quick overview of who is missing what; it may also show you that one student who consistently misses the exam or evaluation night. This person may need some special consideration. One student I had dealt with dyslexia, so we improvised when exams came up. I would read the question and she would answer verbally. This individual was delighted to complete the BC Firefighter Level I and II. It was such a boost to her self confidence.
Put yourself in your student’s place. How would you do sitting under an instructor just like you?
One more thing; laughter is a great medicine. Before our exam nights we play Family Feud or Jeopardy on the big screen, using PowerPoint. I customize each game in accordance to the topic we are studying.
Even though this is all in-house recognition, recognizing your members for successfully completing the department’s training program is a simple yet effective way to reward them for their hard work. Train like lives depend on it.
Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue. He is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor/evaluator and an ordained disaster-response chaplain. Ed has written Trainer’s Corner for 16 of his 28 years in the fire service. Contact Ed at email@example.com