Teaching Soft Skills in the Fire Service

Soft skills and the Employee

Everyone has heard that saying about a person that is very smart, but they do not know when to be quiet and listen. The one that says he/she is a great technical firefighter but does not talk to the public well or does not play well with others. The firefighter that is great when they are present but is typically late for work and disappears when not watched. These are all soft skills, those things that are expected of employees but are not always there. As a school director I remember a conversation with one of the major employers of our EMS students. He said that we gave him wonderfully medically proficient employees, but could we please now give him some that knew how to smile when talking to the patient. This caused me to take pause and examine our students and how we taught them. Our staff quickly came to agree with the assessment that was given to us. We found in our self-examination a very technically competent program that assumed the students had already mastered their soft skills. Furthermore, in looking at fire and EMS texts and lessons we found very little in them that taught or even emphasized those needed soft skills that the employers were desiring.

Soft Skills Defined

Soft skills are typically considered those non-technical aspects of a person’s job. This term has changed and has become broader over time as it becomes better understood how important many of these nontechnical skills are for the success of an employee. Traditionally, soft skills were narrowly considered as such things such as Communication, Teamwork, Leadership, Problem-solving, Work Ethic, Adaptability, and Interpersonal Skills. Over time though many of these topics have been divided, added to, and/or expanded upon. A quick internet search will find multiple versions and lists of soft skills required for the success of an employee. As fire service instructors we should think of those soft skills as any skill that we want our firefighters/employees to have that are not specifically taught in the traditional courses. For example, there are far happier customers and fewer complaints when our firefighters and medics are smiling, polite and empathetic to those that they care for. Past studies have shown that many doctors that are sued for malpractice were medically correct, but their poor bedside manner left the patient feeling that they were not treated properly medically.

Soft Skills in the Fire Service

The fire service has incorporated soft skills into many activities such as breaking cadets down into groups with a leader to practice the concept of teamwork, leadership and even the emergency services important concept of accountability. There is still more that can and should be done to give the service the quality of employees it desires. The teaching of soft skills must be done with thought and deliberation for efficient results. Due to time constraints already on training departments, they are often best done when subtly integrated into traditional technical courses. This sounds easy enough, but to be done right the instructor has to be purposeful. While it may mean a little extra work on the students’ side it will require more planning, preparation, and evaluation on the instructor’s side.

As you are reading this you are probably thinking that as an instructor you are already have soft skills embedded into your lessons and skills. That is great, many of us do. Where we fall short though is evaluating and giving feedback to the student on the soft skill. If the skill is for the firefighter to build a rope “Z” drag system they are graded on the knots, pulley connections etc., but do we give them feedback on how they communicated and worked with their other team members? In EMT class we go through a deliberate checklist to ensure that they properly splint the broken leg, but does the checklist include empathy or even the communication with the patient? These are areas where soft skills can be slid into the lesson without causing any major time or separate class issues. The more that these skills are deliberately incorporated into existing classes the more practice the employee gets with the skill and the more mastery they end up with of the skill. The goal is for them to utilize it in the field as a regular trait without even thinking about it.

The instructor must be thoughtful in the incorporation of soft skills to ensure that not only are they incorporated with purpose, but also that they are being evaluated effectively for the progress of the student and the program. Due to the subjective nature of evaluating soft skills often the evaluation is overlooked, but it is an important component of the process. While evaluating soft skills may not be as clear cut as other skills and knowledge, it can still be done with a little imagination. First, the desired outcome must be decided upon and then a way to determine if that outcome has been achieved or not has to be devised. This could encompass many different ideas such as when teaching communication skills was the receiver(s) of the message able to understand the intended message with accuracy. If leadership is being highlighted as a soft skill, then did the student exhibit a predetermined list of positive leadership traits. Often supervisors evaluate the soft skills in job performance evaluations without realizing that this is what they are doing. An anonymous review of performance evaluations could be a great way for a training officer to identify soft skill weaknesses that could benefit from being addressed in training.

Soft Skill Integration Ideas

Writing grammatically correct can be considered a hard skill but the actual communications process needed to efficiently transmit and receive a message is often considered a soft skill. A few ideas to try might include working on written communication skills while practicing the use of Incident Command System (ICS) forms. Ask your employees to provide daily or monthly highlights of their activities on an ICS 214 activity report form. This allows them to practice their written communication skills as well as familiarize themselves with the form and allows supervisors to keep up with the good work the employees are doing. This can also help the employee better remember and articulate their accomplishments for evaluations and promotion applications. Similarly, this can be done with asking junior personnel to create an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for small events such as a fire station tour or department participation at a local festival for medical support and prevention education.

To work on teamwork, smaller station tasks such as monthly apparatus checks can be assigned to a crew but instead of the officer leading the work, assign the responsibility to a junior person. This allows them to practice their leadership and team building skills in a controlled situation. This idea especially works well with a specialized small task as it allows that junior person to take ownership in the project building their pride and confidence. A good example of this currently might be to begin a vaccination campaign to reduce COVID cases in the community such as the summer vaccination campaign. To evaluate, the junior person peer feedback might be used to determine if the crew member was effective in promoting and leading the team. Depending on the group and intended outcomes the supervisor might choose to do this feedback in an open group setting asking for positives followed by opportunities for improvement or it might be done by anonymous review sheets that would be reviewed with the student by the supervisor/instructor. The instructor may choose to use these types of events as a pass/fail but normally they serve better as tools for improvement as most everyone still has room for growth.

Problem solving exercises can be built into many of the fire/EMS training routines simply by giving the students a scenario once they have shown competency in technical tasks to be completed. The key with integrating problem solving into the lesson is while the scenario uses the learned tasks it is given in a different perspective forcing the students to have to use the application and analyzing steps from Bloom’s Taxonomy. An interesting twist that you can put on this is have the team solve the problem more than once with the added challenge they have to do it differently each time and determine the pros and cons of the different methods incorporating the Evaluation phase of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

As an instructor it is important to think about the crawl, walk, run method of education. Soft skills, as with other lessons, starts with the basics in the cognitive domain and moves into the psychomotor domain where the student utilize the skills in application processes. The real strength of soft skills is tested in the affective learning domain though where it becomes a matter of accepted attitudes. This is even a little harder to evaluate but can be done especially when work supervisors are brought into the evaluation process to give specific feedback on the soft skills that are being targeted in the training and education process.

Conclusion

Soft skills are like common sense, we hope everyone has them, but we know from experience that is not always the case. As instructors we have learned that a student’s success and failure in and out of the classroom is often contingent upon how well we prepared them for the work environment. The environment that the typical firefighter works in can be hard and grim causing the loss of that smile, empathy, and other soft skills that our customers count on to help them in their time of need. There are a lot of great training ideas out there to create the model firefighter that the public expects. We look forward to hearing some of your great ideas.

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