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It’s Saturday afternoon. You are watching your favorite college team play football on TV and you notice the freshman quarterback shows flashes of great athleticism, but rushes throws, and makes some not-so great decisions that cost your team first downs and points.  Yet when the veteran running back gets the ball, there is rarely a hitch in his game.  He always makes yards, hangs on to the ball, and makes the big plays needed to get the “W.”

In the sports world you will often hear sportscasters refer to the number of “touches” a player gets, especially when developing the skill positions. Athletes show a marked improvement when, over time, they have more times touching the ball, and/or repeating their core skills. They gain psychomotor ability, vision, judgment, confidence, and a feel for the ball. They also gain all of the other intangibles that go into the word “experience.”

With all of their classroom education, even doctors get most of their professional know-how from the sheer number of patients they see in a hands-on setting. That’s why they call it a “practice.”

Firefighters are no different. Success ultimately relies on their skill on the scene to dauntlessly pluck citizens from harm, save property, and stabilize the incident. It is imperative that we give our firefighters as many “touches” with their tools, equipment, and procedures as possible.  Classroom training is important, however, applying skills correctly in variable environments while making decisions and judgments is absolutely essential to the development of a well-rounded crew of firefighters.

When that quarterback turns pro, he will have had thousands of looks at opposing defenses. He will be able to call the right play, and will rarely make mistakes. When that doctor becomes a surgeon, she will have practiced getting her hands bloody hundreds, if not thousands of times. And she will continue to practice and learn every day of her career. It’s all about the touches.

We have to strive to do the same for ourselves and our subordinates if we expect to be the best we can be. The question is, how? With all of the pressures on our time, how do we keep ourselves and our team’s skills up to par? It is so easy to just pull up that electronic presentation on foam application and have our members sit through it one more time, one more hour out of the year, one more check in the box on the training form, and you’re Scott-free until next time.

But, what suffers when we assume everyone knows how to put that eductor in-line and set it properly? What suffers when we just talk about what buttons to push on the e-panel of our 21st century fire engine to get foam? What suffers is performance.

When the pool of diesel fuel from the semi is collecting around the compact car that ran under it, and the teenager is screaming for his life because he is trapped and in pain, that’s when performance comes before all else. That’s when you can’t fake it, and just put a check in the box. The team not only has to perform correctly, but they have to work along-side other teams that must perform correctly, all under the pressure of time.

Success in these baseline skills comes from in-context experiences, and as the company officer, your job is to get better at preparing yourself and your crew for this moment. Much has been written about “in-context” training over the years. Look it up. It’s not always easy to come up with the resources necessary to provide a total-immersion training environment like NASA, but there are many things you can do on the cheap and on the fly. To start, think about an emergency that you would be called to, and think about the required time-sensitive tactics that must be deployed to achieve success. This is how a mission-focused training drill is born.

Your mission on the car crash might be to lay down a blanket of foam quickly, using the right solution of foam, without over-applying water, and providing a fog line for radiant heat protection should a flash fire occur. This must be done with the personnel that you have on your rig and your rig alone.

Preparing for this mission starts with a task analysis of what it would take to create a quick and sustainable foam blanket, along with a fog protection line, in a given amount of time, without costly or unsafe errors. It has to be realistic, complete, and achievable. Then just list out the major criteria:

For example:

  1. Driver establishes safe apparatus positioning, secures chocks, and begins to set up.
  2. Officer sizes up scene and communicates assignments, sets up command if not done.
  3. Crew exits apparatus and completes donning of PPE including respiratory protection (plan on worst case scenario where the car is actually on fire).

The remaining tasks should be broken down by riding position:

  1. FF-1 stretches foam attack line, installs in-line eductor and sets to correct percentage, using ATC 3/6 Class-B foam. Correct percentage for gasoline and polar solvents 6% / Diesel fuel and straight hydrocarbons 3% based on scenario given.
  2. FF-2 establishes water supply (if hydrant nearby), then stretches fog line for radiant heat protection.
  3. Officer recognizes and calls for water tender(s) if no hydrant available.
  4. Foam blanket is laid down within x minutes of arrival under the protection of a radiant heat handline.
  5. Officer supervises operation, directs foam application for quality, and determines adequate shut-down point, while protecting extrication crews.

(Your SOP and equipment may call for some variation in these procedures.)

At this point, if the team fails, it is your responsibility to understand what happened and analyze the true cause. In most cases it’s just one or two little missteps that cause a breakdown. Resist the urge to yell at your team, or about the performance. Adult learners will shut down at that point and discard everything you have to say from this point forward. Let them tell you what went wrong and what their solution is. Guide the solution and the performance to enhance it. Repeat until you get better. It will take more than one session, with a break in between for some reflection time, in order for the team to perform at its best.

Some of the great things about this type of “mission-focused” skill drill:

-          Skill sheets are “team-based” on real, applicable, objectives. We work in teams all the time, not as individuals, so the difference from individual firefighter testing skills is remarkable.

-          It’s easy to develop a skill sheet for later use. The finished skill sheet can be shared or put in the appendix of an SOP as a recognized department training evolution.

-          You often find broken or under-performing equipment during the drill, which can be repaired before the real incident.

-          All crew members are invited to give input from their perspective to improve performance.

-          When you need to use this skill or a related skill on the scene, as a supervisor, you have complete confidence in your team to pull it off.

-          Everyone gains experience, learns to troubleshoot, and learns to work together to improve performance (team building).

Understand that stuff gets broken during real-life training. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I’ve broken far more equipment in training than in real life. It would have likely broke when you used it on the real fire and prevented success anyway. It’s great that you catch it in advance. Support your team and their training and make sure your equipment isn’t slowing down or stopping success.

Have a peer or supervisor objectively evaluate team performance with a stop watch and a copy of the skill sheet. Be careful about whom you choose for this role. Take what they have to say seriously, but brief them in advance on their role and its limitations so that they don’t ruin the message to your subordinates. When everyone is respectful and mindful of the goal, everyone walks away with a little pocket candy. High-fives all around when you get a good score.

Expectations should be laid out in advance of the drill so that your personnel have a chance of quick success. This is possible with a preview of online videos of the same skill set, and a chance to look over the skill sheet and ask questions. Obviously you have to adapt online videos and canned skill-sheets to your SOPs, your equipment, your expectations, and your team size. Review the video for safety in advance. Don’t let your subordinates pick up unsafe habits from a video.

If your subordinates don’t know what is expected, they will likely fall short, and so will the opportunity to train. These are predominantly adult learners with some level of experience, and they do well when they know what is expected.

Lastly, with each mission-focused training drill, you will get better at producing more drills. For you, as a leader, it’s all about the touches.

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