Fire Fighting in Canada

Truck training

As a new training officer in the early 1990s, I was tasked with training firefighters on a newly purchased aerial ladder apparatus, and told to hurry up and get it done.

November 14, 2011  By Peter Sells

As a new training officer in the early 1990s, I was tasked with training firefighters on a newly purchased aerial ladder apparatus, and told to hurry up and get it done.

Fire departments should work training plans for new apparatuses into the contract with the manufacturer and determine what kind of training will be included – train-the-trainer programs or direct training of all personnel. Photos by Vince MacKenzie


As soon as I had access to the truck, out I went with the manufacturer’s manual to get familiar with the controls and features. Working my way through the supporting and levelling process, I learned that this apparatus had two limit switches on each outrigger (eight switches in total) to confirm that each outrigger was fully extended laterally and bearing weight.

This is a common feature now, of course. Without all eight switches properly closed, the ladder could not be lifted out of the bed. Can you guess how I found this out?


That’s right, I couldn’t get the ladder to move. One or more of the limit switches wasn’t working. There was an override deadman button (intended for those situations in which full outrigger deployment is not possible in emergency situations) that allowed me to get the ladder out of the bed and run it through its full range of operation. Now I was faced with a dilemma: should I bow to the time pressure and use the override during training, until the problem could be fixed?

In good conscience, I couldn’t do that. You play like you practise, and if I minimized the importance of properly supporting and levelling the apparatus then there was a good chance that the override switch would be used at an incident out of convenience rather than out of necessity.

I refused to do the training until the apparatus was in proper working order, and frankly, I wondered how we could have taken delivery of the rig without someone discovering the problem. We had flown two mechanics to Nebraska to drive the truck back to Toronto. Why not include a training officer, and take advantage of his experience and perspective?

More and more, fire departments are including training specifications for new apparatuses and equipment in purchasing contracts. When departments buy bunker gear, the deal generally includes supply, maintenance, cleaning, repair and replacement for a specific period of time. Among the services requested in such a one-stop-shopping solution could be the training and education of firefighters in the safe and effective use and care of bunker suits.

Given the complexities of today’s apparatus, this strategic approach can, and should, apply to contracts for new trucks. Departments need to understand what specifications they should include in negotiations with apparatus manufacturers, and they need to ensure that the manufacturers can meet those expectations.

Doug Burgin is the district chief for operations training for Toronto Fire Services. Over the last nine years, Burgin has been responsible for putting into service probably more fire apparatuses than anyone else in Canada.

“Simply handing over the keys to a new rig is no longer an option,” Burgin says. “Even highly experienced firefighters need specific training – in the cab, on the road and at the pump panel and/or aerial controls. The department is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the firefighters can operate their new apparatus safely and effectively.”

Options for achieving this are direct training or train-the-trainer programs.

Direct training
Training has been described as the transfer of knowledge and skills with a resulting change in behaviour (or performance). The most straightforward method of achieving this transfer of knowledge is to have the apparatus’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or distributor provide the training directly to the end users (firefighters). This may be the most appropriate model for small fire departments in rural or developing communities. The new apparatus may be the first aerial, foam pumper or decontamination trailer of its type in the community, and the fire department may not have anyone on staff with the technical expertise required to conduct the training.

Even if the type of apparatus is not new to the department, there likely have been many technical advances and innovations since the last pumper was purchased. Manufacturer’s representatives would be up to speed on the digital flow meters, anti-lock brake systems and other features that would not have been present on the 25-year-old apparatus that is being replaced.

Chris Dennis has been the chief mechanical officer for the City of Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS) in Ontario for nine years. With every apparatus delivery, VFRS requests a demonstration by somebody who knows all the functions.

“With all the new advanced electronics and fail-safes built into the truck, who better to train our people than the manufacturer?” Dennis says. “They invented the rig, they engineered the rig, they hand-built the rig and, at the end of the day, if our mechanic is unable to diagnose a problem with the rig, who better to call than the people that gave it life in the first place?”

If having the training provided directly by the manufacturer is the most appropriate model for your department, make sure you are as careful and specific about the training services to be provided as you are about the technical aspects of the tender.

Burgin has plenty of experience in curriculum design for apparatus training. For the direct training model, he suggests that the specifications clearly indicate the number of personnel to be trained. Although it is necessary to consider the hours of training for budgetary and logistical reasons, avoid the trap of equating the quality of a training program with the time spent.

List the skills that the learners will be required to demonstrate. Specify how the learners are to be evaluated. If you are mandated to have your personnel certified to a specific standard, ensure that the trainer has the necessary qualifications to provide that certification.

“A technician off the assembly floor may be excellent at that job,” says Burgin, “but that does not automatically mean that he will be a proficient or skilled instructor. The idea is to pass along the technical and operational expertise to the firefighters.”

Any apparatus manufacturer that doesn’t directly employ qualified training staff can easily subcontract for the required expertise to satisfy the terms of your tender. Don’t be satisfied with having a manufacturer’s representative demonstrate the operation of the truck with two dozen people watching and then print up certificates of attendance.

“Proper training involves firefighters actually demonstrating back to the instructor that they can perform the hands-on skills required to operate the apparatus, and the instructor signing them off on a skill sheet or other training record document,” Burgin says. “Then, those records have to be properly filed and maintained. Simply having a skilled technician demonstrate the features of a truck does not constitute a training program.”

Train the trainer
For fire departments with qualified instructors on staff, a more efficient model for achieving the transfer of skills to the end users may be to specify that the manufacturer provide a train-the-trainer or instructor training course. One advantage of this model is that many firefighters can be trained within the department’s normal shift schedules without having to make special arrangements around the availability of a manufacturer’s representative. Also, the department will have the ongoing benefit of the expertise gained by its own instructor(s).

For a train-the-trainer course to be of maximum benefit, the participants should already have a solid background in adult education and skills training.

It almost goes without saying, but Dennis expects the vendor’s demo trainer to know the operations of the apparatus from a firefighter’s perspective.

“It would be ideal for them to be a firefighter themselves so they have an idea what could be expected when questions are asked. What can this truck do? What was it designed for? If it can be related back from somebody who has been there/done that, it will be easier for the firefighters to accept the training.”

Obviously, the train-the-trainer course should ensure that participants gain all of the technical skills that they will transfer to the end users. However, a common shortcoming of train-the-trainer courses is that they do not go any further than that. To ensure that your training personnel will gain maximum benefit from such a course, it should be specified that they be provided with instructional materials such as audio-visual media, lesson plans and skills checklists for use in firefighter training. If certification of end users is desired, there should be a provision in the contract that the train-the-trainer participants be qualified to issue certificates. If the required signing authority cannot be delegated, the fire department should ensure that the manufacturer can provide certification with appropriate documentation from qualified instructors.

Instructional support
A general rule is that as the size of a fire department increases, the job functions of staff personnel become more specialized. A small- to medium-sized composite fire department may have a deputy chief who is responsible for apparatus purchases as well as the training of firefighters. A large metro department may have dozens of training officers, including one or more dedicated to apparatus training. Regardless, getting the instructors involved in the process as early as possible is always a good idea. This may even involve instructor participation in the pre-construction and pre-delivery visits to the vendor. Dennis has bought a lot of trucks and speaks to this idea.

“To send a select few to the vendor can be a slight morale issue,” he says. “Let’s face it, the fire chief or deputy, as well as maybe a firefighter member of the apparatus specification committee, get to go to the pre-construction, pre-paint and then final visits, sometimes out of the country. It would boost morale if the people responsible for training were also involved.

None of this is free, of course. If the vendor’s trainer came to the fire department and trained the people on their turf and with their new truck, the only cost would be the trainer’s expenses and some overtime if the training is done off shift. But for a larger department, the numbers of trainees would make that impossible.”

If the extent of the department’s requirements for training support is to specify that training manuals and associated support media be provided by the manufacturer, make sure that the instructors have the manuals and media in plenty of time to integrate them into existing lesson plans and schedules. All training materials are not created equal. Often, the same manual or DVD that the manufacturer uses as a sales tool is put forward for intended use as a training aid. Likewise, technical service manuals intended for mechanics may have some content that will be of use to instructors, but that does not make them training manuals.

In Vaughan, Dennis’ normal practice is to have a trainer representing the OEM through the selling dealer come to Vaughan and train VFRS training officers on the operational side of the equipment, followed by another day for the mechanical staff on maintenance and new technology. The quality of training materials is equally important.

“All materials supplied to us have been first class. An operational edition is given to the training division and a mechanical edition is given to the mechanical division. Both would be in written and CD format. The two divisions then get together and determine what is best, depending on the complexity of the apparatus, to get the correct training out to the firefighters.”

It should be specified in the tender documents that training manuals and support materials such as lesson plans or skills checklists be included with the purchase of new apparatuses. Apparatus training has even entered the digital age. Dennis advises that some manufacturers offer Internet training now in conference form.

Burgin has also made use of online training with TFS’s in-house learning management system.

“There’s no better way to get the theoretical portion of apparatus training out to hundreds of firefighters. They come to the practical sessions much better prepared and ready to get to work.”

(For more about online learning, see Peter Sells’ upcoming article in the December issue of Fire Fighting in Canada.)

One-stop shopping
There is more to putting a new fire truck on the street than writing technical specs and applying decals. Fire departments are spending huge amounts on apparatuses each year, and have the right to expect maximum value for the taxpayers’ money.

Ongoing technical service and product support over the life of the asset can be as important as price in determining the value of a capital purchase. The inclusion of training and education of end users in apparatus specifications should likewise be considered as a value-added contract feature.

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