Q&A: A new way to train fire officers

This "it takes a public safety village" approach to officer training is successful and repeatable in any jurisdiction


In the metropolitan Richmond, Va. area, regional cooperation by public safety agencies means more than just sharing personnel and equipment to manage emergency incidents.

Almost three years ago, 33 students from 11 fire, law enforcement and EMS agencies came together as the first class for the Metro Richmond Public Safety Leadership Academy.

When the academy’s third class commences in February, there will be 56 students representing 18 public safety agencies from across the region. Recently, I spoke with Police Lt. Mike Phibbs of the Richmond Police Department, who was one of the program’s founders.

Fire Chief: Where did the idea for the program come from?

Mike Phibbs: It started out as a conversation between me and my captain at the time, John O’Kleasky. I had completed my ICS 305 [Basic Incident Management Team] training and had joined a Type III incident management team, and John was a student in the Naval Post Graduate Program. We ended up talking about how most everything about leadership cuts across public safety regardless if you’re law enforcement, fire, EMS or sheriff.

So, John and I started making some calls and sending out some e-mails to the public safety agencies in the area. And we got this amazing response: people were really interested in having their first-line supervisors learn about leadership in a collaborative environment.

What came next?

In August 2014, we invited colleagues from nine agencies to meet and discuss the idea of a regional leadership school designed by and for public safety professionals. We developed an initial mission for the school — which remains the mission today —to bring together members from EMS, fire and law enforcement to learn leadership and communication skills from the very best instructors in public safety.

Out of that initial meeting we kept the ball rolling through phone calls, e-mails and other scheduled meetings where we saw each other. We were designing a completely new program with a whole set of challenges including who would host the first class, how many students could we have, setting a date, creating a curriculum and selecting instructors and students. Through a lot of work by many people we could launch the first class in February 2015.

What, if any, models did you look at when forming the course?

We knew that we didn’t want an academy where the students came and sat through lectures all day. Everyone in that initial group had similar thoughts; we wanted to create not just a learning situation, but also an experience where students could build lasting professional relationships.

That was important because our target audience for the first year was the first-line supervisor in your public safety agency. In the February 2016 class, we also began to have second-level supervisors attend.

We drew both inspiration and ideas for the academy from ICS 305, the Naval Post Graduate Program and the Virginia Fire Officer Academy. Those programs had group exercises, group projects and blended learning — the kind of things we were looking to create the most impact.

How did you settle on the program’s length?

That was one of the first challenges the development group had to overcome. A few days is too short to have a lasting impact and many agencies can’t afford a two-week in-class program. We decided to make it a week and get the best instructors for the topics we thought were the most important.

Here’s what that week looks like. When people come into the class they are put into groups. Each group is an equal mix of police, fire and EMS personnel; we do not put multiple people from the same agency into one group. First thing Monday morning the instructors run the class through a unified command level exercise as an icebreaker activity.

In that exercise most students will stay in their public safety silo. Most groups struggle at first and that quickly helps students develop a mind-set that from small incidents to the big one, everyone in public safety must be able to effectively work together.

Following the exercise, we do a comprehensive debrief where we help the students see where they could have done a better job of connecting the dots, whether those dots involved situational awareness, decision making, communications, logistics or resource management.

Initially, most of the groups have different expectations on how the other public safety services respond to the incident. We then use group discussion built around that used by the Navy’s Blue Angels. The goal is not to point fingers, which we don’t allow, but to get people to effectively communicate across groups and professions and see incidents from all perspectives.

For the rest of the week, we bring in the best instructors in the area to deliver presentations pertinent to leadership, management, project management, human relations, liability and performance management. We match up instructors from different public safety agencies to work together in a team-teaching approach.

So, if I’ve got a police officer who has developed a good delivery on effective communication in the workplace, I’m going to match him or her with an instructor from, say fire, that has a similar background. That way we avoid, or at least minimize, the student who’s sitting there thinking, “I’m a fire guy. What does this police guy know about life in the fire station?”

Where do the instructors come from and who pays them?

All the instructors have given their time pro bono. In most cases, they are on-duty and on the clock back in their home department; teaching at the academy is their work assignment for the day.

From that first class back in 2015, we’ve had tremendous support from both the instructors and their departments. The agency heads are all on board with the program, and every year we have line of excellent people who want to instruct.

It’s the support of those participating departments and their local governments that has enabled us to run each of those first two classes for about $1,000 each. Whether it’s Chesterfield Police Department printing up the student notebooks, Hanover County Fire or Henrico Division of Fire bringing food or sending a couple of their officers down for the day to manage logistics, every participating department makes contributions in some way.

What else happens during the week?

We also have a chief’s luncheon where the department chiefs who have students in the academy come in and have lunch with their students. Students get to hear from their chief and other chiefs as they speak about “What keeps me up at night?” The students really see the 30,000-foot view of their agencies and how they fit in and make an impact on the agency today and going into the future.

The key is to not only build leadership skills but lasting relationships with the other members. Because remember, our students are those police, fire and EMS first-line supervisors. They are the ones making tough decisions at 3 a.m. that can have either a good outcome or a bad outcome for themselves and their department.

On Friday we run the students through what we call the “decision house.” The students go through several scenarios with their groups. The group members decide who goes first, second and so forth for the scenarios presented to them in the decision house.

Committee members do their research to come up with real-life leadership and management situations for the students to solve. The topics include a disgruntled and unmotivated employee, possible violations of anti-harassment or sexual harassment policies, employees who openly challenge supervisor’s authority, challenges in supervising friends and those who arrived for their shift unfit for duty.

The student goes into the scenario where they’re being observed by a panel of evaluators. The students are given the background of the employee and underlying issues; a role player will then choose one of two options to respond to the student’s actions to resolve the issue. 

If at any time the student feels they can’t handle the situation, or they’re just stumped, they can tap out and one of their colleagues in their group steps into the scenario in their place. By keeping the groups together, students learn different strategies.

That part of the program wraps up around 3 p.m. Friday. They are given certificates and are free to work on their capstone projects, which were assigned to each group on the first day of class.

What is the capstone project?

We solicit ideas for capstone projects from those departmental chiefs — projects that would have impact back in their organizations. Maybe it’s a better understanding of a problem or a solutions to a problem; it could be anything.

For this year’s project, one of the chiefs has given us a problem that potentially has many different facets. We’re going to give the same topic to all the groups and challenge them to explore what one or more of those facets might be.

These are not individual projects?

No. Those same groups stay together to work on their group project. We give them an additional two weeks to complete their project with the outcome being a written report and oral presentation to a panel of chiefs — as if they were reporting out on a work task back in their department.

So starting late Monday afternoon, each group must figure out how they’re going to manage the completion of their project. It’s up to each group to decide who’s going to present, who’s doing the PowerPoint slides and who is doing research — but all must contributes to the project. It’s also up to them to figure out schedules and how they’re going to manage their time to get the work done.

We have instructors who teach problem solving and file sharing the first day of class, before the topics are assigned. We want people to concentrate on the classes, not trying to get a jump on the project at the expense of learning the classroom material.

What does that report-out presentation look like?

Each group gets 15 minutes to deliver their presentation and they have to allow five minutes for questions from the chiefs to whom they’re presenting. So, their research and preparation has to include thinking about what kinds of questions they might get asked and what their response will be.

What other resources are available to the groups?

We think this is one of the best parts of the program — our mentors. When we give them their project, we also provide each group with two or three mentors to help them in getting organized and staying focused on their projects.

These mentors are lieutenants or higher rank within their department or they’ve graduated from one of the previous academies. We’ve only got two classes of previous students, but the gratifying thing is that many of them want to come back and be mentors.

In reality, the academy is a three-week program when you add one week of classroom work to the two weeks the students are working on their group projects. And those two weeks is where a tremendous amount of learning and relationship building takes place.

The reality of life in public safety is we all work different schedules. As one moves up in an agency, being able to effectively work with people on different shifts becomes a big deal.

Their research for their project helps them learn skills and technologies that will help them now and in the future. The mentors and students communicate by e-mail, texting and phone calls to get the necessary work done to complete their project on time. They also meet up as a group or use file sharing to work out the details of their presentation in cyberspace.

But more importantly, as we’ve already learned from our first two academies, working on their project is where the development of professional working relationships really takes off. We’ve heard it from the mentors themselves and we’ve heard it from what the mentors tell their groups.

What advice do you have for other public safety groups that want to build their own academy?

Excellent question. You and I could spend another whole hour or so just talking about this question.

OK, give me your top-three pieces of advice.

Overall, you must understand that this thing [the academy] has a lot of moving parts. Developing the curriculum, registering students, lining up instructors, instructors preparing their material for delivery and I could go on and on.

The first year you need to develop a check list as you go along to prepare you for subsequent years. It is easy to overlook something. We now have a great system, but I always ask at the end our meetings if we are missing something.

Have hard dates for all of your benchmark activities. This goes back to that moving parts thing. You have to have those dates set, communicate them to everyone and stay on top of things. Everybody in this thing, students and instructors alike, already have full-time jobs, so it’s very easy for this stuff to fall through the cracks.

Get your instructors locked into their assignments. We give them the date and time for their delivery, along with goals and objectives for their presentation, and then we pretty much stay out of their way.

But we’re real sticklers for them being there on time and ready to go when they get there. They have to stay on time. If they go over it impacts the next instructor. You must also be prepared to step in if something comes up. Our cadre always has an emergency contingency class ready to go. If you are prepared, the students should never know there was a problem.

And last, but not least, everybody must remember the academy is about the students and what will it take to help them to be successful in this program.

How can someone learn more about the academy?

They can call me, Lt. Mike Phibbs, at 804-646-8143 during my office hours with the Richmond Police Department, which are typically 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST. They can also contact me through e-mail at William.Phibbs@richmondgov.com.

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