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Volunteer Vision: Training is critical for departments of all sizes

July 9, 2019
By Vince MacKenzie

How is your department doing? If you ask any firefighter in this country how his or her fire department is doing, you usually get one of two responses.

Responses from firefighters in busy volunteer departments will usually be optimistic. They say they are motivated, it is exciting, and time flies by as they feel they are doing something really worthwhile. Some could even say that the department is so busy that they even have difficulty finding time training. Training becomes a mixture of training nights and calls. The firefighters in busy volunteer departments become experienced quickly and have no problem maintaining their motivation.

In fire departments that are not busy with calls, which are the majority of departments in smaller communities, the answer to how your department is doing may be somewhat pessimistic. Those firefighters typically say there is a challenge to continuously stay motivated in a training program when call frequency is low. They say it’s a challenge to keep everyone interested. The fire department may be providing a larger social role in a community. Departments with low call volume must maintain the training program for motivational survival of the firefighters. Training is critical in all departments but even more so in small ones.

Fire-service officers who really understand the importance of firefighter training typically are really good leaders and the department they are in benefits greatly. There are a fair number of fire-service leaders that actually don’t fully understand the importance of an effective training program. They typically understand their training program only from the perspective by which they learned how training works within their own department.

Without an effective and challenging training program in their departments, these folks may find themselves wondering why morale is falling and quickly make excuses to not train better, or worse not train at all for a period of time.

Fire-service leaders who don’t understand the true importance of training usually find themselves in departments that start to have issues and, later on, increasing negative morale issues within the department. They end up belonging to fire department organizations that don’t have a whole sense of organization. Compounding the problem is that most officers don’t see that until it is too late and their department is experiencing problems in training attendance.

Good fire departments make mistakes, they make tons of them. One good reason why they make mistakes is because they actually try to get better and try new things frequently. The only fire department that does not make mistakes is the one that does not try to improve.

I have often said that many fire departments can get by on mistakes that others may never see. We can mess up and make mistakes just like the best of organizations. You can mess up a lot in the fire department, but one thing a fire department must get right above everything else is its training program. You can’t get away with a messed-up training program for very long before it starts to show in effective firefighting performance, member morale, member attendance and safety.

Firefighters across the country wonder where to start. They ask how to repair their training program. I think it is easy. The chapters of training manuals using NFPA 1001 is a great place to start and master.

The Ontario fire service has just moved over to the NFPA Standard 1001 for firefighter training. Previous to that, Ontario had its own. I do believe that every province in Canada now follows the standard. Many provinces have been using the NFPA standard as their basis for training. My province adopted and accredited in NFPA 1001 in 1991. It has not failed our department since.

With the vast diversity in Canada’s volunteer and composite fire service, everyone who reads this column comes from a different-sized fire department. The training program will vary based on the department’s needs. My advice is to allow yourself to continually allow your training team to go ahead and make mistakes, but in the process you will see your department progress.

Show me a department with a good training program and I’ll show you a department that has a lot of positive things going on outside of training too. Training is the core of everything we do. If you mess up training, you mess up the department. If you are in a messed-up department, look at your training program first as the main tool to fix the mess.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince at firechief@townofgfw.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.


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