Can firefighter training be too aggressive?

Using competition in training is like using spices in cooking – a little goes a long way, and you have to be careful what combinations you use

This is the first article in a series on lessons learned from near miss incidents reported to the IAFC’s Near Miss program. The program provides a forum for firefighters and EMS personnel to share their near-miss experiences in the field in a voluntary, confidential, non-punitive and secure way. Bookmark this page to read the upcoming articles in the series on rehab, training and CO poisoning near misses.

By Andrew Beck

You are at the training grounds, moving through some hoseline deployment evolutions. It’s a beautiful day, and everyone is enjoying the opportunity to get some hands-on training completed. The training division has created timed evolutions, and it’s become somewhat of a competition between adjacent companies.

As your crew starts its last drill, one of your newer firefighters aggressively pulls on the hose pack to clear the hose bed. You watch as his hands slip off the hose pack, and he falls, tumbling to the pavement. He lays there for a minute, holding his elbow, and you immediately run over to see if he is OK. He said when he caught himself, he felt his elbow pop, and now he is in intense pain. His fall was made all the more awkward by the full turnout gear and SCBA worn for the drill. You feel horrible as the crews from both companies start to take care of him. It was supposed to be a fun evolution, with a little competition to keep things interesting. How could this happen?

The competitive nature of firefighters

In the fire and emergency service, we tend to share a lot of personality traits. Regardless of political views, food choice or feelings about exercise, it’s easy for the firehouse to become a very competitive environment. These traits are what allow us to take decisive action and do great things. In the wrong setting, however, these traits can also be our worst enemy.

When we train, it’s to develop a skill to eventually perform at fireground speed in a stressful situation like you will face on a real incident. This training ensures our skill level is where it needs to be. Training on emergency SCBA procedures and calling a mayday while in full gear, for example, certifies that we can perform that skill in a real-life emergency.

Using competition can be a great way to add stress and test skills in a training environment. It can also bring companies together and increase teamwork as everyone tries to work more efficiently to become faster and more proficient in our skills. Competition can test a skill level, without requiring a live fire environment or another more hazardous training environment. This can push firefighters of all skill levels to work together and allow the newer members to watch the more experienced ones to learn from. Without providing new members a way to learn a skill progressively, we will be testing them rather than teaching them. It can also allow for multiple repetitions of the task without needing to reset any training props.

Competition can create an environment for injuries

Problems can arise, however, when we allow competition to interact with our personalities and run unchecked. Company officers and training officers need to make sure participants follow safety precautions at all times. Firefighters will find ways to work faster if it means they can take home bragging rights. Sometimes, these time savers can be working too aggressively or taking shortcuts with safety precautions. A situation like this is precisely what happened in a report submitted to the IAFC’s Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System.

“Our training officer decided to perform the Denver Drill as multi-company drill one day. It was also decided to use a live victim for the event. Most of the evolution had gone OK, but there were signs of potential injury that could occur. I had nearly been choked out, and my neck nearly twisted past 90 degrees while being the window guy for the lift. One member of linebacker-build and size decided to load the victim on his back. He will press him up on his back, and they can pull him out the window. Once up, the guy pushing from behind, and the guy in the window became very aggressive with their attempt to remove the victim, and the lifting firefighter received a broken neck and broken back. His head and neck were driven into the wall and corner as the victim caught his gear. His calls to hold on and slow down were not heard due to the confined area, wearing of SCBA, and the amount of noise being produced trying to move the victim. The event was timed for all shifts and each team of people.” – Denver Drill 

Lessons learned

An incident like this can be a career-ending injury for a talented, motivated firefighter. It can also have far-reaching consequences for an academy or training division. When we are training, we owe participants a higher level of safety than at an incident when someone’s life is potentially on the line. We have time to plan the event, identify hazards and utilize safety equipment. A few simple reminders can help make the training realistic, but still safe for all involved.

  • Post assistant instructors as observers if all of the training isn’t visible from one place. Have a signal for the participant to use if they are not able to easily communicate due to SCBA usage or position.
  • Plan ahead for things to go wrong. Build in removable panels in SCBA confidence mazes and use safety lines when working at height. This doesn't make the skills any less realistic but allows people to make mistakes while they master their skills.
  • Make sure participants have demonstrated the necessary mastery of the skill before making the environment more difficult. This way, they will be genuinely sharpening their skills rather than still attempting to learn them.

Remember, using competition in training is like using spices in cooking – a little goes a long way, and you have to be careful what combinations you use. When done right though, competition works great and produces incident ready responders for your agency.

About the author

Andrew Beck has been a member of the program staff for the IAFC’s Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System since 2015 as an instructor, reviewer and subject matter expert. Andrew started his fire service career in 2002 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working in wildland fire operations. He then worked in wildland fire for the US Forest Service from 2003-2006, when he transitioned to structural fire with the Mandan City Fire Department in Mandan, N.D. He is currently the training officer, managing department training programs and live burn operations. Andrew teaches thermal imaging at various regional fire schools and is a live fire instructor for the state firefighter’s association. Andrew lives in Mandan, N.D., with his wife Ashleigh, and their four kids.

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