When I began my career in the fire service there were still fire departments that were using ¾ boots and long coats, belt mounted “elephant trunk” SCBAs and had firefighters standing up in the back of an open cab rig while going to calls. Most of these things have faded into fire service history but there are still departments that operate the “Old School” way.
I recently spoke to a long time friend whom I started my career with and after a while the discussion turned to new firefighters coming out of schools and training programs. One specific thing we discussed was the fact that new firefighters are coming out of their schooling with great fundamental knowledge of firefighting equipment, tactics, and safety, but lack the knowledge of where the fire service came from and how firefighting truly is.
The first live burn training exercise I was involved in as a firefighter consisted of a burn tower, more pieces of furniture than your local furniture store show room, and a few gallons of co-op diesel fuel. Needless to say, a few hours later my tan gear had turned black and I was praying that we could just put the fire out. But what we took away from that training was valuable and still stays with me today.
Being exposed to thick black turbulent smoke down to the floor, no thermal imager, and heat that made you want to crawl into your helmet gave me the understanding of what I was getting myself into. At another live fire exercise in an acquired structure, we were midway through the training when we heard a crackled voice over the radio stating “all firefighters evacuate the structure” and with that the sound of repetitive air horn blasts shook us to the bone. After exiting the building I remember looking back and seeing the roof bowing inwards and collapsing not long after.
Now before the safety buffs start freaking out…I will be the first to admit that there were a few times that we got into situations that we had no business being in during training. On a positive note, these experiences gave me the ability to understand not only the limitations of myself, but my PPE, crew members, and equipment. Most importantly it reinforced how to make sure we were able to complete our mission successfully and safely.
Several years ago a new firefighter right out of school joined a department that I was on. He had all of his firefighting credentials, EMT, and countless other administrative courses that ended up getting him a bachelor’s degree from a very reputable university. After a room and contents fire which was his first fire ever, he said to me in a suprised tone, that he wasn’t able to see a few feet in front of his face. Out of amazement I asked him what he was expecting and he jokingly replied that the propane and theatrical smoke trailer they had trained in during school was nothing like the real thing. I wasn’t laughing.
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t great programs out there that provide quality training to our new firefighters because there are, but where does training leave us when it is only “as close” to real as possible. How are firefighters going to know that a room is about to flashover if they have never seen a room that is about to flashover? (And no I’m not talking about putting firefighters in a room and letting it flash, you can search the internet for flashover simulator blueprints!)
With all of the EPA and NFPA standards out there governing what we can and cannot do for training, it makes it difficult for us to make sure that every firefighter coming into the fire service has a good understanding of the dangers and risks that they will face while fighting fires. The last time I checked law enforcement doesn’t issue their trainees pea shooters for training and then give them real guns out on the street.
There is an old adage that I have heard throughout my career that says "train like you work, and work like you train". I couldn't agree more with this saying but unfortunately I don't see people following it. During a recent training using theatrical smoke a group of firefighters ran low on air, rather than following air management and acting like they would in a real situation, they chose to shut off their cylinders and continue on with the training. How does this help us learn our limitations and make sure we are prepared to accomplish our mission? It doesn't.
While today’s firefighters have taken great strides to further their education, don’t forget that book knowledge is far different from practical knowledge. If we tip the scale too far one way or the other, we are setting ourselves up for problems.
Hundreds of years of fire service history teach us to learn from our mistakes, improve our skills, and keep the traditions of the fire service near and dear to our hearts. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a little Old School.