Today's Training Officer: Modern Techniques for Modern Times

What does it mean to be a training officer in today’s fire service? Take a second to think about that. Sure, it means that we have to be credible in the subject we are teaching, but what else is there beyond just “knowing the subject”? Our job as training officers entails so much more than just understanding the knowledge, skill or ability we are attempting to impart on those in attendance. If we truly seek to be effective educators, we must first understand our audience.

We are not in the business of only hiring robots (at least not yet). We are still hiring humans. Humans with personal and professional interests, needs and feelings. Today’s humans have different needs than those of the past. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. It is simply different. The environment we work in as well as the resources we may have at our disposal are also different. Technology for example, continues to change by the second.

I have served as the Training Coordinator for our department since 2011. Perhaps my biggest takeaway during this time is how many layers exist regarding even one simple skill such as pulling a crosslay. Simply pulling the crosslay off the truck does not make one proficient in its use. To be proficient, you would need to know the answer to three critical questions. 1. Why? 2. When? 3. How?

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Due to these three layers, I started referring to this as the “Training Onion”. At the core of the onion is the “KSA” (knowledge, skill or ability), while the layers of the onion are WHY, WHEN, & HOW. Using this model, we will discuss the WHY, WHEN and HOW as is relates to effectively educating today’s fire service.

WHY

The environment we work to continues to change. Building construction methods and materials are a great example of this. Not only is the outside of the building different but so is the inside. Large open spaces, vaulted ceilings and synthetic-based furnishings represent the modern household. As a result, we must ensure that our tactics are appropriate for the situation and that we have a healthy respect for the dangers we encounter.

The differences do not end with building construction. The people who represent today’s fire service have also changed. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, millennials now represent the largest generation in the United States labor force. In fact, nearly 35% of today’s work force is comprised of millennials. What does this mean for today’s training officer?

While there are some similarities, millennials generally have different values than previous generations. Millennials are curious and are not afraid to ask why. They are also connected, socially and technologically. This is important as it relates to training and education. Starting with the WHY is critical to achieving your desired outcome with training sessions.

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Perhaps the way we have always done something is not the best way to do it, or perhaps it is. In either instance, it is important to communicate why that is the case with our members. Knowing why you pull a crosslay is just as imperative to how you deploy a crosslay. Similarly, why would you deploy a 1 ¾” crosslay versus a 2 ½” crosslay? It is the WHY that ensures the proper tool or skill is being used the right way at the right time. Especially as the fire service has witnessed a major changing of the generational guard following the recession due to budget cuts, mass retirements and other factors.       

WHEN

When is the optimum time to train? Limited budgets, increased run volumes and an overall lack of time have made it increasingly difficult to conduct training sessions. This means we have to be able maximize our time spent with our members through well-organized and appropriately timed training sessions. This highlights the importance of qualitative training versus quantitative training. Training sessions must be designed to make the most of the time available. This cannot always be measured in hours. Some of our greatest lessons in the fire service are the result of a few minutes or even a few seconds of an experience we had.

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As we all should know, our obligation to provide training does not cease following a pre-service fire academy of probationary firefighter period. Our intent as fire service educators should be to allow members the opportunity to experience as many situations as possible on the training ground prior to being expected to perform at a high level on the battleground. This is especially true regarding low frequency, high risk operations such as emergency window egress.

Our in-service training and continuing education is vital to the success of our organizations. This is especially true for newly minted command officers and specialty areas such as technical rescue and hazardous materials response. This allows our personnel to build the necessary combination of competence and confidence to be successful throughout their career.

HOW

Our goal as fire service educators should be to understand how we could harness all of our available resources in a way that maximizes learning. Certain instructional techniques may be indicated for one topic but not another. Today’s Training Officer can blend credibility, creativity and communication in a way that crosses generational boundaries and excites learners. Simply put, dynamic training equals dynamic results.

Having already discussed the limitations of time constraints, HOW we train is inherently dependent on WHEN we train. There are many strategies for getting the most out of each training session. One such way to do this is through the flipped classroom concept. We have developed a series of “Quick Drills” that are limited to one page in length and are intended to provide a brief summary of a particular topic or piece of equipment. Having members review these documents prior to training sessions allows us to make the most of scenario-based evolutions.

Stress inoculation is another dynamic tool for building and testing proficiency. Stress inoculation training allows participants the opportunity to build their skills incrementally and to a graduated ceiling by introducing various stressors. An SCBA confidence course and live fire training are two good examples of stress inoculation provided they are done appropriately.

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How we can integrate technology into training sessions is also important to understand. Many of us would be surprised to learn that we could produce our very own virtual reality (VR) trainings on an extremely limited budget. All you really need is a 360 camera, cell phone and VR viewer. In addition to video, the 360 camera allows us to take a single 360 photo. A good example of how this would be useful would be a sprinkler riser room at a new business. Personnel would be able to look freely around the room without ever leaving the station. Our department was able to accomplish all of this for less than $300.

You may also be shocked to hear that you can produce your very own podcast series and publish it to every major platform using nothing more than a cell phone. We have had tremendous success using podcasts as a supplement to classroom training sessions. It allows us to dive deeper into subjects covered in the classroom or even interview special guests in a way that is accessible to our members at any time.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Today’s fire service must be prepared for anything. We need to ensure our members have the basic skills needed to solve complex problems. Addressing the WHY, WHEN and HOW maximizes the potential for a successful training session. Today’s training officer must be up to the challenge. The collective knowledge, skills and abilities of your members are in your hands.

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