One of the biggest challenges for any professional educator is how to stay up to date with the latest ways to engage and motivate fire service students for positive behavioral modification. Most of us understand that one size fits all training, in the fire service doesn’t engage everybody. But, is it bigger than that? Depending on your audience’s intelligence map (which is personality based for each student in the fire service) they can greatly differ in learning styles. For example some firefighters can easily read a chapter in the textbook, comprehend the material, and ultimately retain that information for use at a later date while others simply cannot. Some struggle to stay awake while trying to read a book.
The Fire Service is driven by many rules, regulations, policies and or standards. Many of these require or drive the structural firefighting industry to complete initial and recurrent training. So one would think that all this training would make us ready to respond with a high level of service... So why do we see common fireground problems or mishaps occur on emergency incidents?
The Working Environment Is Like Nothing You Have Seen Before
The working environment at the time of alarm exposes firefighters to extreme levels of stress. High-stress incidents have been proven to decrease a person’s IQ by 50 percent in just a few minutes of acute exposure. This factor alone will immediately decrease your level of comprehension, production and services from an industry minimum (if you choose to train to a minimum standard) by 50 percent.
The Training Schedule Is Often Replicated Over and Over
Training officers who haven't been properly prepared or have been doing this for a long time need to continually seek professional development themselves. You see, if you have never seen what another fire department has been doing for training, or attending a national conference like FDIC, then the only thing you know is what you have seen in house. If that is the case, you will become a product of the environment you were raised in. This creates a huge shortcoming when we are required to prove our worth to the public. Lives are at stake and we may have never been exposed to the complexities associated with today’s fire ground emergency. Yes, training must start at the basic level, where we build a foundation of knowledge, skills, and abilities. But once that foundation has been laid, we must advance our knowledge base to include not only new training, technology or equipment, but we MUST focus on the student’s mental and physical learning environment as well.
Are They Ready for Stress-Induced Tactics?
Training often is based in a highly controlled and safe learning environment. That said, if your training environment doesn’t match your working environment, you are potentially setting your firefighters up for failure. For example, Fire Apparatus Operations is a critical component for fire suppression. Sometimes our working environment is not the picture perfect day. Harsh weather, frozen hydrants, hose failures and complications are part of the job. Does your driver operator program include actually operating the apparatus in these types of conditions before a real incident occurs? If the answer is no, then how can you possibly expect the A-Team to show up on game day? Successfully pumping apparatus in a perfect world does not prepare them for dealing with challenges under stressful times. But I will further challenge you: can your firefighters function to a level of capacity when their heart rate is above 150 beats per minute? You see, acute stress can cause the body to have a physiological response to the report of an emergency, like the tome for instance. How about the report of kids or children trapped? Many firefighters will attempt to replicate training that they have done for years but can struggle to remember the steps, the process, and/or the knowledge base to safely operate that apparatus while other operators may suffer stress-induced paralysis. The stress of an incident can simply freeze up a firefighter who ultimately produces little to no fire ground functionality.
Preparing Battle-Ready Brothers and Sisters
Good fire instructors will create a basic foundation for behavioral modification. They will then increase the student’s knowledge base with advanced training and tactics. Advanced instructors will then attempt to replicate real-world working environments by adding challenges that students must be able to identify and overcome.
Top-quality, industry-leading fire instructors who desire to take their firefighters and the organization to the elite level must have an elite instructor knowledge base. That next level training is achieved by indentifying the student’s intelligence map and developing individualized training or training tips to achieve maximum comprehension and retention. That next level will include stress-induced tactical training evolutions. Providing evolutions that firefighters need to not only identify challenges and formulate Plan A and B but then overcome those obstructions that prevent cognitive thinking. Firefighters who are first-time, first-experience operators not prepared for high-stress decision making often yield decision making from the limbic portion of their brain. The limbic mode is where the fight-or-flight mechanism is activated. Often times the underdeveloped first responder, with low emotional intelligence will make decisions based on personal survival and not from their past educational experiences unless that past educational included stress-induced tactical training.
A Quick Classic Example
Most firefighters are trained to say LUNAR to call a MAYDAY. Many fire departments do this type of training annually in the station with portable radios. Unfortunately the under-developed training instructor who completes this training annually in a non-stress environment may think he or she is properly preparing the firefighter to remember the acronym but is actually not. In the non-stress environment, a large percentage of firefighters can remember what LUNAR means, but next time you are doing SCBA search and rescue training, have the firefighters attempt to recite and give a LUNAR radio report to the incident commander while buried under a simulated ceiling collapse. Without warning, drop one of the fire station mattresses on the firefighter and sit on top of it. While the firefighter is physically impeded to find his radio microphone and mentally challenged because that stress causes his or her brain to go into a fight or flight mode, watch what happens when they can’t remember what the acronym means. That is one example of how important stress-induced tactical training can be with zero impact to the operating budget. Training for the environment you’re expected to work in will make a huge difference in firefighter survival and increase the level of services we provide to the public.
Anyone can easily read the labels on the pump panel on a good day. I am talking about hood-on-backwards, zero-visibility pump training! That hood combined with an instructor who creates some verbal, time-sensitive stress will provide a benchmark of readiness. Are you training for failure with pump operations—unforeseen actions like loss of water, cavitation and/or mechanical failures? Instructors who successfully allow a student to prove the skill then sabotage the apparatus and equipment on the next evolution can recreate mechanical failures that the operator must work through while flying solo. Once again, with a seasoned fire instructor who is creating verbal time-sensitive stress. Will your firefighters sink or swim?
Remember: the bare minimum is one level above substandard in a “controlled training environment.” Do not fall victim to 35% comprehension and/or productivity. The trap is failing to see that meeting “the minimum standard” is going to keep you and your department out of trouble in the aftermath of a high-stress event. Average training breeds an average fire department! Prepare your firefighters and fire instructors to be the best they can possibly be!
WILLIAM GREENWOOD is a 26-year veteran of the fire service. He is currently the Assistant Fire Chief of Training at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. He is a Senior Staff Instructor for the New Hampshire Fire Academy and owns FETC Services, which provides advanced firefighter and leadership training/consultation services. He is also a national speaker for FDIC International and has been published in Fire Engineering and FireRescue.
You can see Billy and learn more on this topic while he is presenting a FDIC2019 Pre-Conference Workshop titled, "Extreme Leadership" on Tuesday April 9th, 2019 at FDIC-International in Indianapolis, Indiana.