4 keys to better firefighter drills

Once something is taught, it takes practice to get from understanding to mastery, and that’s where well-constructed drills come into play

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Training and drilling are not synonyms. At least they’re not in the context of preparing firefighters to safely and effectively do their jobs.

For firefighters to be good at their job, they must have the knowledge, skills and abilities that are applicable to each of their job responsibilities.

Training, or educating, is the development activity whereby firefighters acquire the requisite knowledge and skills for a particular firefighting task. This could be a classroom or online learning session about ladders, followed by the opportunity to practice the newly learned skills to a proficient level.

Drilling is a development activity that requires the firefighter to take previously learned knowledge and skills and develop mastery, that is, the ability to apply their knowledge and skills for a given situation.

Understanding this distinction between training and drilling is crucial for the fire officer who’s looking to develop meaningful drills for their personnel. Conducting training with firefighters who’ve already mastered the knowledge and the skills for a topic will likely result in bored firefighters who are disengaged.

Conversely, running a drill with firefighters who’ve not yet mastered the knowledge and skills will likely result in firefighters who are frustrated by their inability to get it right. This scenario can also result in a firefighter injury or worse, especially if the firefighters have not mastered the safety aspects, they lack proficiency in using their SCBA.

Here’s a look at four ways to get the most out of drills.

1. Every firefighter drill has a plan

Athletes at all levels don’t go into a game without having standard plays that they’ve practiced over and over. That practice ensures that everyone knows their part and how all their individual actions, if done correctly, will result in success.

We manage our incidents using an incident action plan, right? So, manage your drill using a drill action plan. Your DAP should address the what, why and how of the drill.

What the drill will consists of could be something like, we’re going to make a 300-foot stretch of 2½-inch to Side C of commercial structure and apply a firestream to protect the commercial exposure on Side C.

Why we’re doing this drill could be to protect a commercial exposure requires the GPM flow of a 2½-inch line, and we don’t see this type of fire scenario often enough to develop and maintain proficiency.

How are we going to run this drill could include everyone on the engine in full turnout gear and SCBA. We’ll position the engine on Side A of the fire building where the incident commander will give the order to make the stretch with the 2½-inch off the rear of the engine.

Firefighter Smith will take the nozzle and the company officer and operator Vasquez will load him up with the first two sections of 2½ inch. Smith will walk off about 25 feet and stop until Vasquez finishes loading the officer with another 100 feet of 2½ inch.

Then Smith and the officer will each move up another 25 feet and stop until Vasquez loads up with 50 feet of hose. They will then advance toward Side C. When the hose on her shoulder finishes playing out, Vasquez will return to the engine, clear the bed of any remaining hose, and prepare to deliver water.

The officer will continue laying hose out behind Smith. Smith should arrive at Side C with roughly 75 feet of hose with the nozzle.

Sounds simple, right? Try it and you’ll likely find that you’ll never have another messed up drill because all of players didn’t know the play.

2. Review firefighting videos

Not every day is great for getting outside for drill activities. Be proactive and plan for drills that can take place indoors, and still provide the opportunity for firefighters to apply their knowledge and skills to situations that will develop their abilities.

There are thousands of videos of firefighting operations posted online. One of my previous assignments was to review a firefighting video and create several review questions that fire officers could use as a drill for their firefighters to learn from (not judge) the actions of others.

This is a blog that I wrote on my experiences that I believe can be useful to any company or training officer in making effective use of online videos for firefighter drills.

Look for videos that match what you want to cover in training. For example, use several videos with different colors of smoke when you want to cover how to assess what those changes in smoke color mean. From there, develop a short set of questions to use in reviewing the video with your firefighters.

3. Firefighter drills for getting there

The most important job function for the apparatus driver is getting their crew to the scene and back again safely. This involves knowing the streets and roads in their response area like the back of their hand.

One of the most successful and innovative coaches in the NFL was Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers. One of Walsh’s innovations was scripting the first 25 plays that the 49er offense would run to start a game. Those were also the 25 plays that they practiced the most leading up to game day.

Walsh’s purpose in running those plays without deviation was to record how the opposing defense reacted to each of those running and passing plays. Equipped with that real-time information, Walsh and his assistants would then run similar plays that capitalized on their opponent’s identified weaknesses.

You can construct similar drills for current and up and coming drivers to improve their ability to quickly and safely get to the emergency scene.

Contact your dispatch center and have them create a query report from their records listing the top 30 street addresses that your station responded to over the last 12 months. Have the dispatch center query on just the name of the street or road so that multiple addresses on the same street don’t skew the data.

Give that list to your drivers and have them script out in writing the name of every street – and every turn they would make – they would travel to arrive on one of those streets from their station. Then have them work on memorizing those scripted routes.

Next have them drive those scripted routes as they articulate every step along the way. Something like this: “We’re responding to 1600 Johnson Street. Turning left as we exit the station. Now making a right turn on Van Buren Street. Now turning left on to Johnson Street and the address is going to be on the south side because even numbered addresses are on the south.”

At the same time, you record the view from the front seat along with their audio commentary during the drill run. When you’re finished with all 30 streets, you’ll have an excellent catalogue of training videos to use in keeping your current drivers sharp and training new ones.

4. Drills for operational preparedness

Equally important is everyone’s ability to operate safely and effectively once they’ve arrived at the scene. These are some key areas that you can design drills to address this.

First, research the hydrant locations in your response district and what kind of water flow can they deliver. I recently saw a hydrant in a neighboring community that has a utility pole positioned directly in front of the hydrant’s steamer connection. Good luck hooking up to that, right?

Second, what occupancies in your response district will require long hose lays? Don’t think only of long water supply hose lays, but also handline stretches for structures like apartment and condominium complexes where your pre-connected fire attack lines will not reach.

Third, do you have buildings under construction in your area? These buildings provide great opportunities to see modern building construction techniques and discuss how fire impingement will affect structural members and structural integrity.

Conduct on-site visits and take plenty of photographs to use in creating future training and drilling sessions when the weather prevents you and your crew from venturing outside.

Fourth, where are the big-box structures in your response district? Identify those structures that have a footprint greater than 40,000 square feet in dimension. Like those apartment complexes, reaching interior portions of such structures will require stretching supply lines that can be gated down to 1¾-inch fire attack lines.

Preparing firefighters for the different aspects of their job takes more than telling them what to do. It’s a hands-on and ongoing process. And well-constructed drills are a key component. 

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