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Old Becomes New- A look at Training Programs

There is a song by the Real McKenzies by that name, and the last verse of the song goes like this;

"And if you hang around long enough,

You'll experience really cool stuff,

You'll see that old becomes new,

Then new becomes old,

Til old becomes new again"

Like Bobby Halton said at FDIC this year, "we are in a time of great change". It seems like the changes are coming at us fast and furious with building construction, staffing, recruitment, and training requirements.

How is your training program doing? What are you doing to improve it? Are we challenging our firefighters to learn new things? Are we clinging to talking about what puts us in our comfort zone as instructors? Are we mired in the older knowledge that we are more familiar and versed in, or are we looking to increase the relevance and timeliness of the information we are teaching? I am sure we all are aware of the pitfalls of balloon frame construction and can teach it in our sleep but what about lightweight construction features? Can you explain why we need to be aware of engineered beams, prefab trusses, the I-stair and the tactics to overcome the dangers posed?

We need to retain and continue to pass on the hard won knowledge we were taught when we were new firefighters, but we also need to be sure we are teaching to the current hazards. As the years pass, our knowledge becomes dated just as bowstring truss buildings will age and cease to exist. Some burn down, some are torn down but the reality is one day these types of buildings will be a rarity and the knowledge of how to fight them will be less relevant.  It is our duty to make sure that the next generation of firefighters is prepared to fight the dragons that they will have to face, whether it be that old bowling alley with bowstring trusses or the McMansion with lightweight construction at the end of that long lane in the subdivision that wasn't required to have hydrants. It is not enough just to teach to our comfort zone we must constantly strive to keep ourselves current. 

What will be more relevant for the new recruits of today? That, my fellow instructors, is the overarching question we need to ask ourselves. It is the same question that we should ask when writing specifications for a new piece of apparatus, or building a new station. We try to plan for the lifetime of that asset. Why should our most valuable asset be any different? 

Fortunately with our people we can update them along the way with new information and skills but we must diligent about it. Today things change not every few years, but weekly or even daily. New

information comes out all the time. I hope by now everyone has heard about the I stair? John Shafer of helped break the news on the hazards of this new construction technique and the hazard it presents to us. At FDIC last year I stopped by the NIST booth and mentioned it to them, asking when they might test it. THEY HADN'T EVEN HEARD OF IT YET! They were very interested and I hope to see data on it under fire conditions soon.

In this day and age of technology with unprecedented communications abilities available to most everyone, there is no reason that you cannot keep up with what is happening. Read in your spare time. Check out the many blogs and websites. Look for what is going on out there in the rest of the fire service. See what is applicable to your area and integrate it into your training schedule. 

How do we do that?

 Know your district!

 Survey your district

Do a detailed survey of your area. Look at the types of building construction present. Ah, yes, good old building construction! Aren't engineers great folks? The same people that brought you the engineered truss and the I-stair in the past had brought us such fantastic firefighter killers as the bowstring truss and balloon construction. It is the same old battle with building construction. As soon as we seem to have something figured out they come up with a new and inventive way to make things harder or more dangerous for us. Pay attention to the new construction going on in your districts. What materials are they using, construction methods, and are there sprinklers or alarm devices? Ask for permission to take pictures of the structure as it is being built so you can incorporate it into your program. By doing a survey of your area it will help ensure we, and our recruits, are better prepared. 

Look at the occupancies. What is inside the buildings? The type of business, what is stored in it, hazards (IE: Pits, basements, etc.) and include that information too. Consider water supply and response times. Look for the bowstring trusses, the wall retainer plates, the balloon frame buildings, high-rises, and others that require specialized tactics. Take all of this information and then structure trainings to cover all of these areas of building construction. Frank Brannigan said it best, "The building is your enemy, know your enemy." 

 Analyze the data

Once you have an idea of what is in your area, look at all the data and prepare drills to cover the types of building construction in your district. Look for the types that are low frequency/high risk and make sure to train on those. 

Do you have information on how new types of building construction behave under a fire load? Seek out the new information that the troops will need for years to come over the lifetime of these buildings. In doing a good survey and reviewing the data, you may find that you have a need for more Haz-Mat training, or even establishing a haz-mat team. 

 Tools and Equipment

 Check your inventory

First off, what types of tools and equipment do you have? Look at ventilation tools, extrication tools, forcible entry tools, etc… Decide what may work best for you in your area. For instance, there is the old and storied fight between smooth bore and fog nozzles. This is one arena where the two sides are constantly in that cycle of old becomes new as their respective advocates battle it out in the court of opinion around the kitchen table and across the inter webs.

 USE the tools

Conduct trainings that exercise ALL the tools and the skills that go along with them. Recently I conducted a multi-department training session at an acquired structure on ventilation. The first thing everyone did when I instructed them to get their roof ventilation tools was to grab saws. A saw was the first thing that came to their mind. I then asked what they would do if their saw would not start. The younger guys looked bewildered. Needless to say out came the axes and pike poles.  The roof was ventilated manually without the benefit of any power tools. I would have to assume the younger guys had not ever been shown how to use an axe properly and a couple admitted that they had not picked one up since their recruit academy classes. 

While the newer technology is fantastic, and makes the job easier, we still need to make sure our firefighters are ready and proficient with the older tech in our toolbox. When the battery dies, or the saw won’t start, we still have a mission to accomplish.

 Strategy and tactics

The cycle of identifying the design feature, molding strategy and tactics to combat it starts all over. If you forget about one of their old tricks it may come back to bite you.  We have to not only keep up with what they are doing now but make sure we are ready for the engineering of the past when that old car dealership or bowling alley with the bowstring truss catches fire. Knock the dust off the old knowledge and get it into the brain boxes of the new guys. Those buildings still exist and will eventually have an incident.  As instructors our plate is more than full - it is overflowing. 

Whole books can be written on strategy and tactics and many have been - get out there and read! There are great articles written every month about a wide variety of topics relating to good strategy and tactics. I won’t go into all of that here but do your homework as an instructor. Keep yourself and your guys current. It is an ever evolving topic. 

Put together all the pieces and organize an annual training plan. Go ahead and schedule it out for the whole year but retain the flexibility to change it if the chance to utilize an acquired structure comes up or a deficiency is noted on the fireground and needs to be corrected. Try to plan it out so that the strictly classroom trainings are broken up with practical application ones to try to help prevent death by PowerPoint. Statistics show 91% of people admit to daydreaming during meetings and 39% say they have dozed.* By avoiding the mundane and keeping the class engaged you can help squash the mental "mini-vacations" and ensure the class doesn't miss out on vital information.

If you are the Training Officer get others involved with teaching too. Get the company officers doing some of it. It builds confidence in the officers on behalf of the troops because they get to see that the Captain knows what he is talking about. It also improves the officers confidence and helps everyone to buy in to the program. If you have a talented guy on a squad company who is great with ropes and knots, have him teach it! Trying to teach it all yourself may be possible on a small department but will get exhausting fast. The more people that are involved, the more involved people will be.


It happens without us even noticing it. We allow the old knowledge to start to rust or we allow the new information to be neglected. That seems to be the way it goes. We either cling to the old that we are familiar with and know well, or we chase after every new thing and ignore the lessons of old.

It is our responsibility as Instructors and Company Officers to first and foremost prepare our firefighters to do the job safely and efficiently. We have to find a balance between the tried and true knowledge and the new information that comes out every day. It is talked about a lot with people advocating “Back to Basics” and others sounding the alarm about new lightweight construction and the tactics needed to

combat them. BOTH groups are right! We don’t need to follow one at the expense or exclusion of the other. We need to find a balance between the two that fits our own jurisdictions, tools, troops, and tactics. By doing this, we prepare for the fires of today and tomorrow. Find a balance between the old and new, so that old becomes new and new becomes old hat.

Has it all been done before? In some ways, yes it has. Think about how the upheaval of the old volunteer system. It sent shock waves throughout the fire service when cities said "no more" to the brawling insanity that was prevalent in the larger cities volunteer fire service of the day. Today we are seeing major upheaval as cities and towns across the country cut their fire service with a cleaver. How big of a change is it to go from four man engines to two or worse? I know of a couple of departments near me that send the truck company with only an engineer!

Be sure you reach out to other instructors near you for help and give - no, offer - help to others. We have a responsibility to the entire fire service, not just our shift, or station, or department.

"If you hang around long enough,

You'll see that everything starts to rust,

Then shine it all up til it's tip top,

And old becomes new again!"

In Brotherhood,


* A network MCI Conferencing White Paper, Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs and attitudes toward business travel, teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity (Greenwich, CT: INFOCOMM, 1998), 10.

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