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Does Certification Equal Performance?

Candidates for certification, whether individuals or organizations, should be required to demonstrate alone and as a team those skills and judgements that will be required when they hit the street. As instructors and leaders, that is our ultimate responsibility.

The fire and EMS world is ruled by certifications. These certifications are supposed to represent a referenced level of knowledge, skill, and ability, verifying that an individual can indeed perform to that level. In most cases, because of our certifications, we are expected to recognize situations, take certain actions, or preventative measures, within our scope of practice. We may be tasked with making notifications to a higher level or different type of expert. We may also be expected to manage, supervise, lead, or teach based on our level of certification. Sometimes we are called to perform under extreme circumstances.

It should go without saying that if we are going to attempt to achieve a level of certification higher than our current one, we need to put in the work to attain the knowledge and the skills to perform to that level whenever called upon, not only during a practical skills exam. A practical skills exam is usually just a very plain-label representation of what we may actually see in the field. It doesn’t take into account things like extreme time pressure, weather, life safety, understaffing, scene noise, scene chaos, political and public scrutiny, etc.

The person awarded a certificate on weak or even false terms is often proud to have it and display it, but if their competence hasn’t truly improved to be certified to act, and their performance hasn’t improved to actually execute the required tasks, then who is being fooled? We are lying to ourselves, and probably others, if we “hold” a certificate but cannot recognize situations, perform the skills, demonstrate the knowledge, apply SOPs, and differentiate between correct and incorrect actions.

This self-serving bias may not only be on an individual level. It can also be on an organizational level. When an organization, instructor, or institution adopts a model of lowest cost, least disruption, and turns a blind eye to the vacuum of actual skills training and demonstration, there are long term consequences. Skills training must include real-time, team-embedded skills demonstration to be of any use to the remainder of the team. The consequences of poor certification training include lack of recognition of danger, and poor decision making ability, and inability to adapt skills to a problem – not even an emergency, just a typical problem. The consequences of a lack of such abilities manifest themselves in injuries, near misses, and line of duty deaths of “certified” firefighters.

When the pool of liquid under the semi-truck is burning and the Class-B foam is needed, pronto, there is no substitute for knowing exactly what and what not to do and how to do it.  When the ½-full propane cylinder has flames impinging on the top, there is no substitute for recognition, decision making, rapid evaluation, and task completion as a team. When you arrive at the fire station to find that the halyard is bad on the ladder, the nozzle is set wrong, the foam eductor is buried in the compartment, the cardiac drugs are expired, there is no substitute for high professional standards. When the pre-plan inspection reveals a defective sprinkler system and a deficient water supply to the nursing home, there is no substitute for knowledge. When the building fire is showing signs of collapse or potential to flash over, there is no substitute for judgement and decision making. No matter how a certificate is achieved, if the holder can’t or doesn’t perform, everyone loses. While the wisdom of experienced is a vital component, these are all basic functions of certification.

Certification courses and testing must be applied with realism and challenge under circumstances that create awareness, knowledge, motor skills, core values of right and wrong, and the expectation that responders will make the right decisions. The wisdom of experience is supposed to be passed down by instructors, organizations, SOPs, and officers, but carrying out tasks as necessary under time pressure is a function of basic certifications and hands-on skills training that must take place during the certification process.

The bottom line remains that we are actually expected to be able to perform to our level of certification and training. When the candidate passes just for showing up for the exam, the certificate is as worthless as the piece of paper it is printed on.

A weak performance isn’t and never has been good enough. A near-miss incident, a line of duty death, a missed save, and higher losses will be the eventual consequence. Organizational apathy toward performance is not acceptable to our stakeholders, be they our families at home, the public, governing bodies, or our own members.

Accredited certification processes exist to ensure that certification equals job performance as set out by standards making and regulatory agencies. It is up to us as instructors, leaders, institutions, and organizations to uphold the high standards required to put our people safely and effectively on the street.

We must put a high value on knowledge and understanding of the job in order to truly achieve a higher level of performance. In order to raise the value of our organization, we must value our people foremost.

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