The Politics of Training

Editor's note: Jason Zigmont's latest article focuses on a question posed by a member of the FireRescue1 network. Do you have a question for Jason? If so, e-mail and it may be featured in an upcoming column.

By Jason Zigmont 

Finding the balance between requiring members to be properly trained and not scaring members away can be very difficult and a common problem for volunteer departments. Chief Tinsley from Tennessee recently e-mailed me with a series of questions from his department that are all too common.

"Training is a big problem in departments from all the time I have been around. The new set of SOG/Handbook that I am putting together has to be approved once finished by the city council. We are a volunteer dept. but are owned by a small city.

The problem that I am having is that I want to require all members to attend a certain amount of trainings in-house per year and also a certain amount of training hours per year. I have some members that are hardcore and will be at every training when the doors open, but on the other hand I have two or three members that never show up for training but will show up on locations for a fire call to help.

I told the city council that all members will have to meet the training and attendance requirements or they would have to be put on the inactive list. These select members that never show up to trainings do have fire training from the past and are certified firefighters. The city council says that with the rules I want to come up with for our handbook such as requiring members to meet certain requirements on training and attendance would be running people away from the dept.

The city council thinks that anyone at anytime should be able to volunteer their services to the dept. I do agree that we can use any and all help whenever we can get it but I believe that if they want to be a member then they should have to obey by the training and attendance rules or not volunteer. So how or what can I use to make this work? I know of the importance of training and that it is a liability and safety measure.

Basically the city council thinks if Joe Blow off the street wants to join the dept., he can and if he can only make one or two trainings a year and show up on occasions at call then that is all that is of importance. But I do not see it that way.

It has to be across the board for everyone so that my butt is covered as well as the city's if by chance one of these members ever screwed up somewhere down the line. So what is one to do when you have members or so-called members that do not want to make the time to train and attend but then also you have the city council say that it is OK for them to only show up just when they want to? Any advice would really be appreciated."

Chief Tinsley's problem definitely represents just one of the many balancing acts that fire chiefs are expected to do daily and deserves to be answered within this column to allow as many folks as possible to learn what can be done."

To address the issue I would suggest a three-step approach:

1. Identify what the state and federal minimum training requirements are for your area.

2. Inform the city council of the minimum requirements and their potential liability if these requirements are not met.

3. Develop a competency-based training system for each of your firefighters to meet or exceed the minimums.

Determining what your state and federal minimum training requirements are can be easy if you know the regulations, or difficult if you need to start from the ground up.

The first question is whether or not your state is an "OSHA state" and if your department has to comply with OSHA regulations. The second would be any requirements from your specific state and your insurance carrier. Fortunately OSHA, and most other regulations, state members must "prove competency" at set intervals rather than "attend training," which will help your department find ways to meet the minimum.

Your city council needs to understand that it is ultimately responsible for the fire service. This responsibility is both to provide fire service to protect the community and to protect the firefighters themselves. Should a member be injured or a fire not handled appropriately, most likely the city will be named in the lawsuit, as will your department and you as Chief. The first thing to occur in any injury or death of a firefighter is to pull the member's file, including training record, which can be a huge issue.

Once you have the minimums in hand and an educated city council, the goal would be to create a program to demonstrate competency at regular intervals of each and every one of your members. This does not mean that each member has to sit through eight hours of training on blood-borne pathogens every year, but they must show competency, an issue which I covered in a previous article.

This does mean your members may have to attend more training or be tested out, but it is for the protection of everyone. Your SOGs or bylaws should clearly state the need to meet these minimums and, given a reasonable amount of time to make up missed training or testing, your members should be pulled off the line until they prove competency.

The three-step plan outlined is not going to be popular with everyone, but it is fair and the bare minimum for safe operations. It is possible you may lose members, but I would much rather lose members than have an injured firefighter due to improper training.

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