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Leading the Team
by Linda Willing

Training and testing: Not knowing the difference can paralyze a fire department

Firefighters not given the freedom to fail during training will engage in one of these three dangerous behaviors

By Linda Willing

During a recent training evolution, a newer firefighter, Pat, gets confused going through the SCBA maze and ends up tangled in the hoseline and gear. When Pat emerges from the building, observing firefighters immediately start to make jokes about the situation and before the day is over, Pat has a new and derogatory nickname that is likely to last a career.

On a different training exercise, an older firefighter, Sam, forgets a step in the process of extricating a dummy from a simulated car wreck. The result is a delay in completing the process that affects the entire crew.

Some at the training exercise talk about what happened with others on the department, speculating that Sam just "doesn't have it" anymore when it comes to more technical aspects of the job.

Everyone in the fire service understands the importance of training to maintain top performance and readiness on the job. For training to be most effective, it must allow people to experiment, try new things, and occasionally make mistakes and even fail.

Win at all costs
Unfortunately, this is not how a lot of fire service training is done. Among firefighters, training often becomes testing or a competition to be won or lost.

This approach to training may begin in recruit school, where new firefighters might be divided into teams that compete with one another throughout the course of the academy. If not controlled, this environment can lead to a culture where winning becomes more important than learning.

There is nothing inherently wrong with competition as one motivating factor. Firefighters are naturally competitive, and when managed appropriately, competition can be fun and drive people to higher levels of achievement.

The danger occurs when mistakes become a source of shame or stigma rather than a learning opportunity for all involved. When mistakes are not acceptable, people will go to extraordinary and often very damaging lengths to avoid them.

Quest for perfection
Consider the recent scandal among military officers responsible for safeguarding the launch codes at missile bases. At one base in Montana, 92 Air Force officers were suspended when it was discovered that crews routinely cheated on monthly certification tests.

There is no excuse for cheating, especially when the stakes are as high as whether nuclear missiles are launched or not, but it is worth digging deeper in this case. The subsequent investigation revealed that crews felt pressured to cheat because although the published passing standard on the tests was 90 percent, many supervisors made it clear that anything short of a perfect score on the tests would undermine a person's chances for promotion or other considerations.

In other words, mistakes were not an option. As a result, crews did what was necessary to meet that new implied standard. As the Air Force Secretary said as a result of the initial investigation, "They didn't cheat to pass. They cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent."

In fact, controlled follow-up testing resulted in nearly all officers achieving at least 95 percent.

If people feel that mistakes will limit career options, lead to relentless ridicule, or result in shunning or disparate treatment, they will either find ways not to make them, cover them up if they are made, or will avoid situations where any mistake might occur. All three of these situations are bad for any organization.

3 results
When mistakes are not an option, for whatever reason, the first effect is that people will not take risks or try new things. This level of caution goes far beyond a healthy culture of safety to one where people are so fearful that they are paralyzed when action is needed.

Cheating and other dishonest behavior often follow. If people think they will be vilified for making mistakes, it is not surprising that they would try to cover up those mistakes or blame others for them.

The demand for perfection leads to a culture of fear that undermines the real value of training. As the Air Force Secretary said, "We have lost the distinction over time between training and testing."

It is in everyone's best interests for fire service leaders, from informal peer leaders to company officers to training chiefs, to reconsider how training is done.

  • Is training a safe environment where people can try new things?
  • Are training classes done in different ways to engage all types of learners?
  • Is it always possible for people to ask questions or admit they don't know something?
  • Are people allowed to make honest mistakes or even occasionally fail?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then there could be the seeds of real problems within a department. It is critical that fire departments make training a safe place where mistakes can be made, so that mistakes are not made when there are lives on the line. 

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.



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