The Missing Training Topic: Acceptable Writing Skills

Many of you have begun to set up your 2018 training schedules. What have you included that would either motivate your members to strengthen their own writing skills or would better prepare them for the writing responsibilities in their current and future positions?

Why does writing training matter?

Your departments need people to write all kinds of documents: incident reports, patient care reports, training reports, lesson plans, accident investigations, after action reports, memos, personnel evaluations, budget requests, proposals, email, and a long list of others. All of these can be consequential documents, and your departments need to feel confident that individuals can meet the writing demands of their positions.

What do the standards say?

NFPA standards for many positions address common, positional writing expectations.  Consider NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications. The 2009 edition contained 58 sub standards calling for writing as a requisite knowledge or skill. Does 1021 call for any skillset more often than writing? Here are two examples of 1021 standards that emphasize the need for writing:

4.1.2      General Prerequisite Skills. The ability to effectively communicate in writing utilizing technology provided by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ); write reports, letters, and memos utilizing word processing and spreadsheet programs…

4.2.5      Apply human resource policies and procedures, given an administrative situation requiring action, so that policies and procedures are followed.

Requisite Skills. The ability to communicate orally and in writing and to relate interpersonally.

Now consider NFPA 1041, Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications. The 2012 edition included 11 substandards addressing the need for writing skills. Two of them are listed below:

4.2.3      Prepare requests for resources, given training goals and current resources, so that the resources required to meet training goals are identified and documented.

Requisite Skills. Oral and written communication, forms completion.

6.2.3      Develop recommendations for policies to support the training program, given agency policies and procedures and the training program goals, so that the training and agency goals are achieved.

                                Requisite Skills. Technical writing             

Most fire and EMS agencies bemoan the quality of many written documents generated within the department. If this is true for your own department, think about how your training division can better prepare people for the writing tasks they face in their positions.

Do you include graded written components in promotional processes?

Considering the number of real writing responsibilities facing people in most positions, departments need to at least look at the basic writing skills of promotional candidates before promoting them. Departments that currently do this generally are not looking for the best writers. They simply want to be sure that the people who fill positions with writing responsibilities can actually meet those responsibilities. For example, one department in the Southeast relies on its captains to conduct various types of research when in the captain’s position, so candidates must write a research paper as a part of the promotional process. The papers are graded for coherence, sentence structure, grammar, and mechanics by an outside evaluator. Chief officers within the department evaluate the quality of the content. Graded, written components typically account for only 10-20% of the final score, but that is enough to motivate candidates to incrementally strengthen their writing skills.

How can the training division help?

Writing is a trainable skill, like learning to operate a pump panel, but this subject has not traditionally been viewed this way in the fire/EMS services. Training divisions can elevate writing standards and skills among their members by other means such modeling good writing practices, providing writing training, and providing writing resources.

Good modeling happens when, in your own training sessions, your visual aids and handouts use correct grammar, mechanics, and spelling.  Offering writing training to new hires is the most economical and effective way to establish that your department pays attention to and values respectable final documents. Officer development programs should also include at least one day of writing training, and the training should be led by someone who believes that writing is important and that training can actually improve individual abilities. A simple and effective example of a writing resource is a template. When departments provide templates for commonly written documents such as incident and EMS reports, they are offering a clear and consistent response to the often-asked question: “What do you want in this report?

What can you gain from this session?

People who attend this session at the conference can gather hard-to-come-by ideas for how to implement these and more ideas. The content accommodates people in training who do not feel like writing is their strong suit as well as those whose writing skills are strong. Expect to leave feeling inspired and empowered to tackle this issue with realistic ideas.

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