By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
Firefighter training is not a synonym for testing.
We’ve all been a part of such an exercise, either as a student or an instructor or both. The
training entity in a fire department has developed and arranged for a practical training exercise that involves an emergency scenario, a physical prop or simulator, and firefighters. It could be a live burn using an acquired structure or a structural burn building or the department having access to a vacant commercial structure to use for non-fire suppression training, e.g., search and rescue.
All good, right? Sure, until the exercise begins because that’s where the “wheels come off the wagon” in too many cases. The firefighters and officers are thrust into the training scenario given to them with the expectation that they handle the situation as if it were an emergency situation. No briefing, no consideration for the level of knowledge, skills, or experience of the “students” and no guidance and direction. Just handle it.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is too familiar of a scenario, especially when it comes to entry-level training of firefighters. The students “go at it” giving their best effort (Honestly, how many students show up for a training exercise with the intent to “screw up”?), make a bunch of mistakes, and suffer through a post-exercise critique where those mistakes are discussed for the purpose of “learning.”
Then everyone packs up and goes home, especially if the exercise was a “one and done” in nature event, e.g., a live burn in an acquired structure and now the structure is unusable or time has run out for the day. Thus, everyone goes home with the taste of “defeat” in their mouth.
Research by Klein and others has shown that our default methodology for making decisions under stress is to “go with what we know.” We typically make critical decisions based upon our previous experience dealing with the same type of situation or one similar to it. This is known Recognition Prime Decision-making (RPD).
If we’ve not had a previous actual experience of handling such a situation, our brain next looks for a similar situation we’ve experienced in training. And that’s where the idea of “defeated following training” comes into play.
The familiar fire service training refrain goes something like, “Train like you want to operate.” When we conduct a training exercise that looks and feels more like a testing exercise we’re letting those students “upload” a negative model into their brain. So when they face a similar situation in the real world, and their brain goes into RPD mode, guess what’s going to come up?
People say that we learn from our mistakes. Not necessarily true according to research. That research shows that we’ll act according to the “model” that our brain finds when we confront a situation. So the question becomes: do you want them to come up with a positive model or a negative model?
4 Steps for Creating Positive RPD Models in Training
We can do a better job of ensuring that training exercises provide our students (entry-level and incumbent alike) with positive RPD models for the experience that we give them. Bonus: using the following steps also serves to further develop the ICS and tactical leadership skills of your instructor cadre.
- Create and deliver an Incident Briefing using ICS Form 201. The Incident Briefing should be used to ensure that all students and instructors understand the why, what, where, when and how for the training exercise the training exercise has been designed. Together with the Site Safety Map, the Incident Briefing should ensure that everyone understands where training activities will take place and where critical logistical facilities, e.g., Rehab and medical treatment or SCBA cylinder refills, are located.
- Create and deliver an Incident Action Plan using ICS Form 202. The Incident Action Plan should be used to brief all students and instructors on: (1) what are the training goals and objectives; (2) who will be involved in the training; and (3) where will the training take place.
NFPA 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions requires that all participants in a live fire training exercise must undergo a “walk-through” of the structure (structural burn building or an acquired structure) to become familiar with the building’s layout, entry and exit points, and any hazards present, prior to commencement of the training. Why shouldn’t we do this for all training exercises?
- Create an Organization Assignment List using ICS Form 203. This ensures that everyone on the training ground knows what their assignment is and who they are “working for” (training with).
- Create a Safety Plan that includes a Site Safety Map of the training site. The Safety Plan should also include a Health and Safety Message for all students and instructors.
This is the framework within which we conduct our emergency operations, no? So shouldn’t we train our people, especially our newest people, in the way that they’ll be expected to do the job in real situations?
How many times have you seen this happen? An instructor puts four entry-level students on a hose line and directs them to enter the structural burn building—that’s filled with heat and smoke—to search for, find, and remove a victim. There’s another instructor in the building with full PPE and SCBA who’s observing what goes on inside so that they can bring up the mistakes made by the newbies during the critique afterwards.
A Better Way
In my former department, Chesterfield County (Va.) Fire and EMS, under the leadership of our Training and Safety Division Chief at the time, Jim Graham, we came up with a better system.
We started by recruiting and selecting company officers—and firefighters who were authorized to act as a company officer—as instructors for our entry-level training program, aka, rookie school. During practical training exercises, instead of that four-person hose team being led by one of the newbies (who has no tactical leadership training), we put an Instructor/Company Officer in charge of each crew. Their job was to lead, guide, and direct that crew of newbies just like they would their regular crew on a daily basis back at their station.
Instead of floundering around inside the structural burn building, the rookies were given tasks to complete, guidance on doing those tasks correctly, learning how to maintain crew integrity and accountability in a limited visibility environment and much more. All from an experienced fire officer/instructor. (Each Company Officer/Instructor was equipped with a thermal imaging camera so that they could see everything that was happening with their assigned crew).