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From the Fireground
by Jason Hoevelmann

5 traits of great firefighting instructors

There are as many definitions of great instructor as there are great instructors, but they all share these traits

By Jason Hoevelmann

When I began to consider what traits make a great fire instructor, I was inundated with ideas. There were so many people who came to mind who had shaped and mentored my career as not only a firefighter and officer, but also as an instructor.

One of the sayings that always comes to mind is, "every officer is an instructor" just by the nature of the position. I have learned over the years that instructing is more than just managing a crew. To truly instruct, you must be invested in the people you are leading, not just ordering them around.

Great instructors have some common traits that make them great. I would argue that instructors are unique in their delivery, in their experience and in the way that they create their own content. But, these five traits are found in almost every great instructor out there.

1. Knowledge
An effective instructor must have knowledge of the topic. I am not talking about "you took a class and now you can teach it" type of knowledge.

No, you have studied, read up on, asked those who are experts, and researched the topic in order to teach it to others. This process takes time; many will skip this step and eventually be caught by a student who knows more about the subject matter than the instructor. That's not a good situation.

2. Experience
With prerequisite knowledge also comes the need for experience. For example, you will not see me teaching farm-rescue classes. Although I have some background in that topic, I have not obtained the correct amount of knowledge or experience to effectively deliver that type of information.

To be effective you have to use knowledge from past experiences to add credibility to what your are presenting. I have witnessed newer instructors take a class and immediately want to teach it because they like the subject and are "into it."

This typically does not end well. Great instructors teach what they know and have experience in.

3. Ability to relate
Effective instructors can make content relevant to their audience. They have the ability to use experiences and events to illustrate concepts and theories. 

This is most commonly done with storytelling and knowing how to relate to the audience. So, if I work in a suburban area and use tactics that are geared for a large number of personnel, I need to be able to teach tactics that can be used by a more rural department if that is where I am teaching.

Being able to relate is one of the most important traits a great instructor can have. Think about sitting in an EMS or first-aid class with a doctor as the instructor. That doctor, no matter how smart and how much experience he has, will be completely ineffective if he cannot relate the content to the audience in a way that meets their understanding and needs.

4. Passion
A great instructor must have a passion for teaching and the profession. We have all sat through a class with an instructor who was just there for the money or because he was made to do it. It is a miserable experience.

Passion is something you have or you don't. An "OK" instructor can be very successful because of the passion she exude during the class. It is contagious and it makes people feel good to know that the teacher care about the job and the students.

Normally, those with great passion are also those who take the time to learn the profession and job. They are usually students of the fire service and love passing on what has been shared with them. It's palpable and their students very rarely nod off during the afternoon. 

This trait is what drives the instructor to take advantage of every learning moment that comes her way. These are the instructors who will stay after the class to show a group or individual the answer to a question instead of just telling them.

For example, after a hands-on class this instructor is the one who stays to show another technique, to let a student get more reps or try something new that was brought up in the class.

If the instructor is passionate, then the students are more likely to be as well.

5. Humility
Nobody likes a know-it-all. At one time, you were a new firefighter and didn't know as much as you know now. The great instructors will tell you that they are lucky and have been blessed with great mentors and instructors who helped them along.

Being humble is genuine with great instructors because they realize that they still have much to learn and that sharing the knowledge, experience, and information they have obtained to this point is an obligation and responsibility they have to the fire service.

Students are more accepting of information from an instructor who admits not knowing an answer or shares examples of professional failures. Those things help to make the instructor real and more credible and show transparency.

We are in this profession for a short time and our goal should always be to make the next generation of firefighter better than the current one. Humility plays a large role in that.

I'm sure you have your own ideas of what traits a great fire instructor should have, and you're probably right. We all are individuals and have unique gifts that make us effective. 

Make sure your information is credible and that you have put in the time to ensure you can effectively deliver and demonstrate the material.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you next month. Train hard and be effective in all that you do.

About the author

Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. His experience spans more than 20 years and he has been an instructor for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and is a State Certified Fire Officer II. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor's degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is currently a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative, a Board Member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the technical committee for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications for NFPA. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.

Chief Hoevelmann can be contacted via e-mail at Jason.Hoevelmann@firerescue1.com.



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