By Zachary Brown
Let’s be honest; today’s fire department no longer sees the fire duty it did only 30 to 50 years ago. This means that we no longer get repetition and practice of our skills day after day. Today, the average fire company no longer does multiple fires per shift. Yes, there are still pockets all over North America that do. But, rather, now it is not uncommon for many firefighters across the country to only do a few fires a year or less. So how can we ensure that on these all-too-rare fires and emergencies, we employ the right strategies to succeed, the tactics to achieve the goal, and the skills and abilities to overcome and mitigate any obstacle? The answer is training. We have to train, and we have to train often.
In the beginning of what has become today’s modern fire department, members were concerned with one thing only, putting out fires. However, over the years, what we are expected to know and master has grown to encompass many topics ranging from emergency medical services, to technical rescue in all its aspects, from white water to cave collapse. buildings, hazardous materials, terrorism, the list goes on and on. The knowledge and skills required to become proficient in an area are broad and encompassing. To be an expert in all of them would be impossible.
So how does the modern firefighter master all aspects of the fire department, from stretching hoses to starting IVs and reading EKGs to setting a high line during a rope rescue incident? Training! I have to admit that as I progressed in my career and after every training opportunity I only feel dumber in the sense that it exposed my weaknesses and opened my eyes to everything which I really don’t know.
Basically, we don’t train for ourselves. Yes, it’s always a pride to be the smartest in the room. But, at 2 a.m., when that trapped child needs us, we must have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform that rescue as quickly as possible despite the challenges we face. We have no right to become complacent; complacency kills, and it also kills those we serve. We must be the firefighters we would want to appear if our child was trapped and they were the only hope for survival.
So what is maintaining a state of readiness, or better yet, what does training look like? Too often I think people get put off by the idea of training because they think it always has to include hours of formal training at the drill yard or at the state fire academy where somebody one will tell them everything they are doing wrong. Although formal training on a drilling site is sometimes absolutely necessary, more often than not it can be much simpler. It can often be easily conducted informally around the station, at the kitchen table, or on the aircraft floor. Perhaps you as a crew are discussing your last work fire and doing an informal critique of things to improve for next time. Or walk through your first due, measure buildings, or walk through buildings under construction and see firsthand the battlespace you might be called upon to work in.
It doesn’t always require downtime or a lesson plan. It only requires taking time during the shift to practice, discuss, read, or reflect on the things that can make you better. I too am guilty of it; I came in wanting an easy day and did nothing between calls. However, this is a disservice not only to the citizens but also to our crew and ourselves.
Although we can often train informally around the station or more formally at a nearby drill yard or academy, if all we do is surround ourselves with like-minded people who get the job done like us, it can be very difficult to stop doing the same thing over and over again, and we don’t learn new ideas and methods to raise our level of knowledge. So, it’s important to get out there and hear new ideas. That might mean dragging the 30-year-old out for training at the station, drilling with nearby companies, or getting training that goes beyond your shift. Get out of the department and attend courses, conferences and exhibitions from outside agencies and across the country that have different procedures, methodologies and ideas than what we are used to. By expanding this mental Rolodex with different ideas and methods, we can broaden our repertoire for this complex problem we might face on stage. Although we don’t normally operate in the same way or with the same operating procedures as any other service, we can at least store ideas for future use.
The time to practice is always now, not on stage. At this point, it’s too late to learn what we don’t know on the fly. Yes, we may be able to troubleshoot and troubleshoot to resolve the issue with sufficient time; however, with lives at stake, time is never on our side. We have to ask ourselves every shift, am I ready for whatever may happen? Is my crew or company prepared for whatever may happen? Is my department ready for anything that can happen? If the answer to any of these questions is no, what are we doing to implement change and become better?
I have heard time and time again from younger members without rank or tenure that they feel they are incapable of effecting change. However, we can always work towards the perfection of ourselves. If we’re in the bay working on tools or throwing ladders, it’s often contagious, and soon you’ll find an audience. It only takes the enthusiasm of one to spread to the other members of the department. Sometimes this contagiousness is slow, but if we stay the course, if at each shift we put in the effort, we can only hope that others will follow. So, if you can spread your enthusiasm, you have, in essence, implemented department-wide change.
I spent many sleepless nights thinking about the assumptions and my strategies and tactics if I had to answer them. We must always think of the future; just because it never happened doesn’t mean it won’t. It must also be recognized that the fire service is a very dynamic environment. Many skills or tools that were common ten years ago are now obsolete. We learn more about fire dynamics each year, and fire codes and building construction change to meet demand. What we learned in our fire academy was just the foundation for this fluid and dynamic environment. Therefore, on every shift, we must at least make sure that we are learning and growing.
Many of us are in very busy departments or stations, and I have often heard the argument: “We don’t have time to train”. I find this incredible and I ask you what you do with your time? Are you occupying your time between calls with meaningless activities that direct your attention elsewhere or are you wasting time until the shift change? Playing Candy Crush, teasing probies, and watching endless replays of “Emergency!” do not give us any advantage when a Mayday is declared and you have to decree an RIT operation. Thus, it should not occupy our free time. Nothing should deter us from wanting to train.
As a fire department, we’ve gotten into the bad habit of expecting new firefighters to come to us with all the information; and, rather than mentoring them, we are often more concerned with their dishwashing skills than taking them aside and working with them. I don’t know of a single fire where a professional mop was needed. We need to invest in our young and new staff as they are the future of our organization. We cannot boast of our pride in tradition if we are not willing to invest in tradition to take our young members apart and give them the tools to succeed and impact the lives of the citizens we serve.
If we use our time and energy wisely to impart information, read and learn new information, and discuss strategies and tactics, we can only hope that when that day comes – and it does – we will have the knowledge , skills and abilities to be able to step in and get the job done in the shortest possible time. Time is the enemy; the weather indicates how long someone can stay in the smoke before you pick them up. The time indicates how long it takes you to do the stretch and bring water to the fire. The time indicates how long the body can go without circulating oxygen before starting CPR. Time is what the professional firefighter must live and breathe. He measures us in every way; he’s not passing judgment, even to say that we didn’t do it fast enough. Time is what matters on every shift until we practice and improve; that’s what we measure our careers by. Do we want to be remembered at the end of our careers as the firefighters who always put the citizen first? Who gave everything in every task and always lived up to it? Or do we want people to remember us by saying, “Well, he was nice”? Take advantage of all the benefits to train and pass on what has been given to you.
Zachary Brown is a captain with Dekalb County (GA) Fire Rescue, a large department in metro Atlanta. He is a 15-year veteran of the fire department and a 12-year veteran of the department. He is a paramedic and a member of the Technical Rescue and Dive Teams and the Georgia Search and Rescue Team.