Saturday, July 2, 2011

Training or Trouble?

Idealistic Firefighter: "I think we should be doing more training on [x], so the guys at the station and I went out an played with the [x] equipment last weekend, it was pretty productive"

Concerned Officer: "How dare you?  We don't have an official policy on that, you didn't have any training materials or curriculum to work off of, you aren't allowed to do that!"

How many times have I heard this conversation or something similar?  It's a difficult situation, particularly for a volunteer fire department like ours.  Young firefighters come out of the recruit class, only 4 months of training under their belts, full of motivation and energy, wanting to do stuff, and quickly disappointed.  Formal training is only provided twice a month, and can be sterile; call volume is somewhat high, but mostly in-home medical calls, so it's impractical to do much "on-the-scene" training for working structure fires or rescues. As with most skills, those you don't practice you'll quickly forget.

It's hard to be surprised (and in fact it shows great intrinsic motivation) when firefighters take it upon themselves to get some practice. Four or more people hanging out at the station?  Let's find something to do! Amongst their peers they practice emergency SCBA maneuvers, strategize for fires in neighborhoods where water supply is a challenge, try different configurations for the rescue gear, and overall put hands on their equipment enough that when they're called to deploy it they aren't having to figure it out on the spot.

There is great value here.  Small groups produce training sessions on subjects they don't feel comfortable enough with, targeting gaps in operational readiness that are difficult to discover from the top organizational levels; it's hard to say to a chief "I don't feel like I can draft water into our engine very well", but it's easy to say to a couple of the experienced pump operators at the station "can you show me how to draft again?  I need a little practice".  Such sessions bring unique experiences to individuals, using their own equipment, in their own run area, with the very people they'll be running these actual calls with.

Then the station officers get wind of it.  Our firefighters are out there, completely unsupervised, without our knowledge, doing whatever they want! They could be practicing mistakes!  Who's making sure they're doing things right?  Who's authority are they doing this under?  Utter chaos! Mass pandemonium!

And so they come down on the group, sometimes by just giving our straight directives like "don't do that any more", sometimes more passively by creating enough procedural steps to be detrimental to any kind of impromptu training (you have to give me a curriculum copy before doing any kind of practice, with these forms filled out, scheduled at least 3 weeks in advance, etc).  All that energy and enthusiasm is stoppered up and lost.

Such officers should be ashamed of themselves.

I cannot be absolutely sure whether such a reaction from an officer roots itself in a misguided but genuine concern for quality of service, or in an emotional reaction to a perceived usurping of authority.  It almost doesn't matter.  The end result in either case is that the firefighters are discouraged and chastened, no longer willing to strive for any sort of learning experience outside of the bi-monthly department-approved training sessions.  The loss of line-personnel initiated impromptu training, targeting the needs and interests of the small group involved, is a true tragedy.

And here's the real loss: those impromptu sessions are occurring because somebody feels like they haven't had enough practice yet, and they're doing something about it.  They're practicing something that they may be called upon to do in a real emergency TODAY, and by attempting to cut these minor trainings off, an officer is saying basically "Don't practice this because you might get it wrong, never-mind that you might be called upon to perform this exact skill tomorrow for real.  It's better to learn frantically by guessing wilding during an emergency than to play with the equipment in a controlled setting when you have the opportunity".  Talk about setting your guys up for failure.

One of my core principles driving my authorship of these articles is that I don't ever want to be a complainer; I have no intention of identifying problems without attempting to provide solutions.

To the officer who cares for quality and is scared to have their firefighters practicing on their own for fear of mistakes, there is a better path than simply disallowing or discouraging informal trainings.  Your firefighters are showing you they have commitment and motivation, don't stifle that!  Instead, tell them how pleased you are that they take their responsibilities seriously, tell them you want to play too and ask to be invited next time they're going out to train, and show that you want to help by getting every departmental SOP and SOG you can related to the things they want to work on into a binder they can have with them at the station to reference if you aren't around to supervise so you know they're working off of accurate material.

There may be concern in this case, like there is in my department, about not having an SOP covering this skill.  The only thing I can say to that is your lack of an SOP is not an excuse not to train, unless it's also an excuse not to perform the skill on a real scene.  If you could actually be called upon to cut a hole in a roof tomorrow at a fire, than not having a vent-saw SOP doesn't mean you shouldn't be practicing with the chainsaw (you must be practicing with any equipment you could be asked to use), it just means you need to write a vent-saw SOP.  Period.

To the officer who's ego is wounded by their firefighters taking practice into their own hands: There's the door.  You should be absolutely delighted that your guys want to do more than sit around and play X-box.  Officers are put into place to ensure the operational readiness of their stations.  They are there to break down obstacles to their motivated firefighters getting whatever they need to be the best public servants they can be, and to prevent bad apples from spoiling the bunch.  Anyone who would stunt the growth of their station to preserve their sense of "authority" is not an officer in my book, they're just a bully with a different colored helmet.

And finally to the firefighter who wants to practice: don't let any of this junk stop you. Don't let politics stand in the way of you becoming a better firefighter. Find somebody who knows more than you, and stick close to them.  Find somebody who knows less than you, and bring them along.  Everything else will fall into place.

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