Volunteer Vision: Consistent training for peak performance

Revamp training for peak performace
July 17, 2017
Written by Vince MacKenzie
I believe there is no such thing as a fully trained firefighter. Firefighters are constantly training; it doesn’t matter whether you are a rookie or have had several decades on the job. Career or volunteer, this job requires a life-long learning commitment.
Good or bad, our level of training becomes visible to all who observe us and our skill level of proficiency is apparent and obvious.

I recently travelled across the Atlantic provinces to present a marathon training seminar with fire chief colleague (and mentor) Jody Price of Oromocto, N.B. We spent eight days travelling and presenting our leadership program, Good, Bad and Ugly of Fire Service Leadership, to fire officers and firefighters. The program was sponsored by the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association to address challenges of keeping firefighters motivated, especially in volunteer departments.

Jody and I often discussed our own observations about challenges with fire training programs, especially regarding volunteer firefighters and the level of training across the generations.

When we arrived in my home province of Newfoundland, we noticed a few icebergs off the coasts. Icebergs are common sights for me, but my colleague had never seen one before. I remarked that only 10 per cent of an iceberg is visible above the surface, and the greater mass is hidden under water. When you actually see one of these icy monoliths up close it is hard to imagine that nine times more ice is floating directly underneath.

Like an iceberg, sometimes 90 per cent of what firefighters know lies underneath what is visible. As leaders in the fire service, we only observe about 10 per cent of what our team members know. In theory, leaders know a firefighter’s qualifications, on paper, but the training becomes apartment as more experience is gained on the fire ground. So when we evaluate our firefighter training programs, what’s visible sticks out and is easy to identify, but it’s the 90 per cent that lies underneath that we must consider.

Like icebergs, firefighters are shaped by and adapt to their environment as they progress through their careers in fire. Icebergs break over and roll from time to time, exposing different portions of their hidden underbellies to the public. So do firefighters, as they take on different roles in fire departments, from rookie, to firefighter, fire prevention, line officers and, eventually chiefs. These positions all require different training. When a firefighter fills a position, that portion of training becomes apparent based on the tasks performed on a regular basis. The other 90 per cent lies underneath, seen only by peers.

As firefighters advance into leadership roles, they often break apart and roll over to accommodate the new jobs tasked to them. The new position will inevitably expose a completely different side of the firefighter’s abilities.

Rookies in the fire department typically focus their training on what can be seen; they study and focus on completing their level-one training, often assuming that they are ready to go and face a fire head-on. Remember, that our training standards are just the minimum of what firefighters should know. As fire service experiences unfold over time, firefighters will realize that standard training is the 10 per cent; so, what will their 90 per cent consist of?   

During our classes we instructed all participants to do the following: 
  1. Everyone should evaluate your department’s training program to ensure it is complete, allowing a firefighter to go beyond the basics. Ask the rookie and the veteran if the sessions meet their actual needs.
  2. If you are responsible for presenting training, ensure that your members think it is a worthwhile exercise. Seek out input, and more importantly, criticism so your training sessions can constantly improve.
  3. Participate in training every time! That doesn’t mean just show up, that means to show up and actively participate with conviction.
Firefighter training is the most effective way to find knowledge and experience gaps to build your 90 per cent. Training has to be our core function now more than ever and we need to ensure our firefighters are trained as much as possible. We are never ever fully-trained fire fighters; we are always learning.


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 him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince

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