VOLUNTEERS CORNER: TO BE THE BEST, TRAIN!
BY LUKE STEELE

Published in Fire Engineering Magazine, November 2004.
Reprinted with Permission

Anyone who is serious about this job recognizes the need for serious training. Training reinforces past lessons, teaches new ones, and is critical to building and maintaining teamwork. In addition, most departments and / or "governing bodies" require a certain number of educational hours to be documented each year. Good Training Officers work hard to make those required hours as fruitful as possible, minimizing the time you spend trying to determine if that's a flyspeck or a manufacturing defect on the ceiling tiles. Only the most arrogant rookies and the "4x5"s (4 years of experience 5 times is not 20 years of experience!) dismiss the value of training, but hey, they already possess all of the knowledge in the universe anyway.

So if you care about being the best, you train. You sacrifice the nights and weekends to make sure that when the bell rings or the pagers go off you provide a timely, professional, and appropriate response. The rest of the time you run calls. But if you just go back home or to the station when you're done with the latest incident you've missed one of the best chances you will have to learn and to improve: call it OJT or whatever, it's a valuable educational opportunity without having to sit through an hour lecture first.

Example: Vehicle accident, victim pinned, serious injury. You and your team arrive and everything goes like clockwork. Five minutes later, the car roof is on the ground and the patient is on the stretcher and turned over to EMS. As your team loads equipment, you're surveying your handiwork and trying to think if it possibly could have been done any better. However, before you order that "Rescue God" tee-shirt you need to recognize the invaluable potential you have here for teaching, team-building, and learning. Call your team over. "Ok boys and girls, take a good look. What could we have done better? Different? Quicker? Safer? What if the vehicle had been against a tree? What about this? What about that?"

Then listen. If everybody says "Nothing, Boss - nobody could do it any better than you", then you've got a major problem. You're either a narrow-minded dictatorial egotist who spends too much time seeking revenge against anyone who voices an opinion other than yours, or you have a crew so stupid that they can't pour water out of a boot with the instructions written on the bottom of the heel. There is little hope for this situation, just spend a lot of time praying that you never get sick.

An honest and intelligent crew will give you honest and intelligent responses. After all, if they didn't think they could do this job they would have been one of the ones up near the truck "assisting" the pump operator. So pay attention. One might have completely removed the roof instead of flapping it. Would that have made patient removal easier or would the additional time have been wasted? Explain your decisions and probe for constructive criticism: you might think that would show weakness, but you'd be wrong. If you honestly review the feedback you get, you'll learn something and you'll also reinforce to every member of your team that his or her contribution is not only appreciated, it is required.

Another Example: Middle of the night, unoccupied or abandoned structure, room & contents ablaze upon arrival. Should you attack or go into defensive mode? That's not a stupid question - some departments don't do entry on abandoned structures. Now, I'm as big a proponent of "Risk Little to Save Little" (penned by someone much wiser than me) as anyone alive, but I want to learn something new or at least reinforce my beliefs on every call I run. Besides, it's a structure fire, and you can never be 100% positive it's abandoned. Treat it the same way you would with Junior screaming in the back bedroom. Team, Plan, Attack. This is a real fire, not a diesel-fueled surface burn that can be put out with spit after spending 10 minutes choreographing your grand entrance. Knock it down, put it out. Then analyze the effort! Time? Teamwork? How was your water pressure? Your layouts? Your support from Command? Your backup team(s)?

Don't misinterpret this to indicate that you should make entry into a rotten two-story house that's already leaning. If done properly, your size-up (another training opportunity) will allow you to make a safe decision on offensive or defensive mode. Furthermore, this is not a criticism of training burns, which are the single most important tool in teaching structural firefighting. You can make training burns intensely realistic, especially now with the shift to Class A materials. However, it's still difficult to recreate the mindset of a working fire: everything from the adrenaline to deploying lines that are not lying on the pavement in front of you conspire to make it different. Sometimes, even a small fire in an outbuilding can highlight shortcomings in your operational procedures or reveal that a member of your team who was supremely confident at the last training burn can't turn the corner when it's for real. It's much better to find this out when there is no known life safety issue, because it's easier to retreat.

The key part to learning from the calls you run is the post-action analysis. It can be formal or informal, a few people or the whole department. Walk through that structure you just put out or around that car you just disassembled and take an unhurried look. Odds are that you'll find something you could have done different - maybe not better, but different. Do a risk / benefit analysis for the options you had, figure in time, fatigue, staffing. If you had Mutual Aid on the call, how long before they were on scene? What caliber of people did they provide? You will have people in your department who aren't interested in "wasting time" talking about it. That's a warning sign: you've either got a budding 4x5 on your hands or you've got someone whose duty should be restricted to getting cold water for the real firefighters.

Keep in mind that if you turn the review into a "this is what you should have done" or worse, "this is where you screwed up" session, then you've wasted the most important benefit of the post action analysis, which is team-building. There is a vast gulf between "this is what you should have done" and "what if we had done this?", so ignore it at your own peril. At the very least, you'll assure that one particular Firefighter will clam up anytime he or she thinks that their actions are less than perfect, at worst you will have people willfully concealing information that could be critical in finding out what happened.

Too many departments try to forget a call as soon as the master switches are flipped off, especially if everything didn't go exactly as someone thought it should. But the reality is that you learn from your life experiences, both good and bad, and those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The most courageous Chiefs are not the ones who stonewall the investigation, they're the ones who logically analyze the mistakes made, put plans in place to prevent it from happening again, and then get the word out in the hope of preventing another apparatus somewhere else from being driven way too slow with black covers on the lights.

Every call you run is a training opportunity. It offers a chance for you to pass on what you know or learn something new, and an opportunity to build the team confidence that is so crucial to a successful and consistent outcome. It is not difficult, but it does require mutual trust and respect among professionals, whether career or volunteer. Remember that insight is not limited to those with the most time on the job: a lot of times a fresh face can have some fresh ideas that will improve your team. Also keep in mind that the purpose is to build, not destroy. If there is criticism due and you're the one responsible for passing it out, then this is not the time. Finally, recognize that every member of your team has strengths and weaknesses, and that their opinions will be colored by them. Weightlifters always grab the 50 pound hydraulic cutters, those with more finesse grab the SawsZall. Some officers only sweat around the mouth. Some firefighters will take extraordinary steps to avoid sweating at all. The list goes on.

Most of all, use post-action analysis to mold your people into a team of confident professionals that hits a scene with a purpose, a plan, and a solid commitment to nothing less than the best possible outcome. If you succeed, you'll find out just how much fun and satisfying this job can really be.