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The Overhaul    

     Cultural Change for a Safer Fire Service…it starts with ATTITUDE and TRAINING!  The first step is looking at what is already in place in your department.  If someone has developed something and it is seems to be working, then maybe all it needs is a little tweak. But remember there is always room for improvement. If it is not working, more often than not, it is because one of the previously mentioned issues has taken place.  Answer the following questions:

  • When are we training? (Frequency)
  • What are we training on? (Realistic/Required/Needed or cool guy stuff)
  • Are we training to current standards and best practices?
  • Are there problems such as boredom or attendance issues?
  • Do we have instructors who are qualified and competent?

     More than likely you will be surprised at the answers you come up with to those five simple questions. Now that we know what is or is not happening in or with the department’s training, it is time to hit the streets.  By hitting the streets, I mean talking to the people who are on the front lines.  Anyone can sit behind a desk, at a computer and dream up a schedule on paper that looks good at first glance.  The best sources of information are our firefighters and front line officers.  They have some legitimate ideas and experience the problems first hand.  By doing this and finding out what is on their minds you need to find a way to incorporate those issues and / or ideas into the new program for buy in and ownership which will increase their support for the program.  That will go a long way to helping change attitudes later.  Secondly look at the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and see how you can make these challenges come to fruition within your department. These initiatives provide the substantial ground work for helping overhaul your training program.  Next look at the fire service community…Yes there is a fire service world outside your department, area, and state.  Find out what everyone else in the world is doing for training.  Most departments that are progressive will be more than willing to share the information on programs they have.  Lastly begin the grueling task of changing attitudes and managing transition.  This task will be educational within itself.

     As you begin to overhaul the program you will most likely met a strong opposition by some of your personnel and will be welcomed with open arms by others.  Most individuals will give push back when it comes to change.  Before you begin the task of making a lot of change, I would suggest a great book “Managing Transitions Making the Most of Change” by William Bridges.  This will help you understand the anatomy of change in human beings and give you some outstanding tools to utilize to make this process work smoothly for the greater good of the organization.


     Next let’s test them, both written and practical testing.  Obviously, written examinations test the individual’s didactic knowledge and comprehension.  When you are out on the streets you will be shocked to see how many firefighters have not picked up the books since the academy.  A no notice or pop quiz, if you will, can lead you to areas that have been overlooked or forgotten about because the subject is not the hot topic.  Don’t put too much into the raw scores, how well could you expect someone to perform on a test over such a broad base of subjects without any preparation?  Instead look for patterns.  High numbers of people missing the same question should be one of the first items we look at.  Once we sort out areas that need further attention look at the answers they gave.  This could be something as simple as terminology changes or it could be that seldom used subject that we need to go back and refresh our minds, because we as an organization focused on other issues that were the buzz or hot topic.


Practical evaluations should be at a company level.  Before starting, it would behoove you to talk to the officers of that company.  They may have already identified a weakness and be taking steps to correct it.  Start small with skills that we all were evaluated on at the end of our academy.  If we are certified as firefighters, at some point we had to be able to do those skills and they form the root that we base everything else on.  Later when the program advances and expands, we can ramp up the scale and complexity of drills.


     When test results, meetings, and looking into the magic eight ball are done we have to take the information we have gathered and apply it.  This is where the assignment definitely becomes more than a one-man job!  Some departments may have a committee or an entire division assigned to training.  More often than not, smaller fire departments put this load on a single officer or instructor.  Do not be afraid to reach out and connect with those “gifted” individuals you met on the streets; you might just identify a future instructor or two.  Someone has to be the point man, so remember to lead from the front.  A ranking officer helps in our paramilitary organization because eventually we all will face problems or need to sell the information to the command staff that develops policies and procedures.


     Make a schedule for a year, broken down into quarters.  This brake down adds flexibility as we know things change in our chosen profession; new equipment comes into play, or we add yet another type of service.  By doing this it allows us to have a plan but yet keep it flexible. You have to plan out your weekly training sessions and drills to meet NFPA 1001, 1002 and 1021 standards.  Additionally plan a special large and more complex multi-company drill on a once a quarter basis. 

     Now the tricky part is the balancing act.  The organization must devote equal shares to all the disciplines we dwell in.  EMS is a factor for most of us, so include time for continuing education that is required for providers.  Haz-Mat will not be going away.  We need officer training and the list can go on for some departments.  The best resource for determining frequency for each discipline is NFPA standards, ISO rating requirements, and state mandates.

     Weekly or company drills need to be small yet potent packages.  Develop these drills small enough to not eat up too much of our already thinly stretched time allotment.  We still only have 24 hours in a day and multiple other issues competing for our time.  A potent package consists of the information provided being current, meaningful, and accurate.  Some items to remember are getting companies back in service and in district as soon as possible, although training is as important as anything, we can’t forget about the real world mission that is always lurking ahead.  By focusing on specific objectives, NFPA 1421, we can meet nationally accepted job performance requirements / objectives and still be within time frames.

     Identify your instructors early!  Ultimately the training of our personnel falls under the company officers realm of responsibility but there is nothing written anywhere that they have to teach every class or drill.  They should have the flexibility to use their personnel’s expertise.  By virtue of personnel being involved as an instructor may just provide those officers with an opportunity to spur the development of the rest of the company.  The earlier we get them on board and informed about the workings of the program the more time they have to prepare themselves.  We also get a chance to get the program tweaked and tested before we sell it to the people that set our policies.

     Now we are ready to take our new plan to the decision making body.  We can show why we need to change and what we need to change.  Most importantly, we have got a plan ready and not just a problem to present.  Be ready to accept some criticism, hopefully it is constructive.  Also be prepared to explain the changes, some times a simple referral to one of the previously mentioned standards will suffice.  Other times the cold hard truth is that when you were talking to the command officers about these changes there will be a brick wall appear because that would mean change.  Change would mean a disturbing trend is occurring and they want to stop it for fear of change.  So potentially you could get a lot of the some old song and dance about how we have always “done it” here and beat down.  Expect to have to make changes, (let’s face it the first draft version rarely gets through) go back and make them, just don’t let that distract your overall focus.  Other words disguise it to make the oppressors think it is their idea and it was a good one.

     Once the governing body has signed off on the plan it is time to take it to the people.  This could very well the hardest part.   The worst case is the change being perceived as punishment or the “Shotgun Affect” on the entire department for a few individuals’ short falls.  As with any standard or policy, there should be some sort of looming discipline for failure to comply but forcing training on people historically does not survive the long term nor does it truly enhance operational capabilities.  The company officers will once again be a useful asset.  They are the ones that will be in the best position to aid in the acceptance of the new program.  Provide them with the same information and utilize the same tactics you used to sell the program to the administration.  Statistics from evaluations, applicable standards, and requirements that you used to develop the program can speak volumes when one of the major issues is a lack of knowledge or understanding of the continued requirements along with ‘I remember you talking with me about this very issue and I used your ideas”.  If you are still meeting resistance to the change, appeal to the mission, safety, and personal pride. 

     Now that the program is running don’t forget quality assurance.  It is not just for EMS calls.  Have the participants evaluate everything from instructors to audio/visual materials.  In a prominent area, post the programs goals so everyone can see what the organization is trying to accomplish, and keep it updated.  Keep evaluating and re-evaluating the program, adjust as necessary, and once the basic core skills improve take the program to the next level.  Ideally, the program should expand and grow in concert with the department.  Remember that it is important to do Post Incident Analysis and After Action Reports not only on designated incidents but on training as well.  This is where you can develop a road map for your program. 

The time to realize that changes need to be made is not out on the scene of an emergency or when someone gets hurt, dies, sued or loses a certification because of failure to meet training requirements. Don’t train till you get it right, train till you can’t get it wrong! 

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