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Why firefighter training depends on repetition

Firefighters and instructors who think they can stop drilling on skills are dead wrong, and brain science explains why


Many students, and indeed many instructors, do not understand the importance of structured repetitive practical drills. However, these should be the normal training tactic for instructors.

There are various reasons instructors don’t conduct structured repetitive practical exercises, most of which are not valid. “They already know it,” is one of the reasons you’ll hear.

How does the instructor know this if he has not conducted consistent structured repetitive practical exercises? You can’t do something one time every few weeks or months and expect perfect performance. In fact, you can expect the exact opposite.

Students use all kinds of verbal, psychological and body language cues to communicate to instructors that they already know how to do their job. The firefighter is telling the instructor they are so good they don’t have to practice.

How many times does it take to acquire exceptional skill performance? In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. If you practice three hours per day, every day, you are looking at just over nine years to reach mastery. At once every three weeks, you may not hit that mark until retirement.

Others disagree with Gladwell. A 2014 Princeton study concluded that Gladwell wasn’t completely right about the 10,000-hour threshold.

It found the influence deliberate practice had on mastery was based on what was being learned. Deliberate practice was more important skills mastery in things like sports, where the rules didn’t change, than for less predictable environments like entrepreneurship.

If the Princeton study is right and firefighting more closely resembles sports than it does the other categories, deliberate practice makes an 18 percent difference in mastery.

Practice like a pro

How many hours does a firefighter spend practicing all of the skills they can be expected to perform in some cases under life-and-death situations?

Larry Bird, the great Boston Celtics basketball player, had a rigorous practice schedule he completed before every game. That included long-distance runs, practice games, free throw work and physical agility exercises.

Why did Bird practice for a game when he was one of the best in the league at the time? He knew he needed to practice to preserve those skills and stay the best.

Many young people are motivated to get only that which can be obtained without effort. They are looking for a pre-packaged, off-the-shelf document to give them Superman-type strength without making the effort.

To learn to shoot a basketball into the hoop, to do the steps to make a ladder rescue or to think with a trained mind requires hundreds of hours of practice. And much of that needs to come from structured repetitive drills.

Some believe there are courses that can pinpoint your problem in half an hour and give you enlightenment in a weekend. Some short courses can and do make changes. But they do not, to any large extent, change behavior and what you can do.

Repetition of skills is what will make the difference between life-and-death performance in highly stressful and life-threatening situations.

Over-learn it

Army cadets spend a lot of time disassembling and reassembling their guns and other similar activities. This is an example of over-learning. When a behavior or skill is over-learned, it tends to become automatic and cannot be easily disrupted under stressful situations.

The gunner will be able to repair his gun under the stress of battle and the basketball player will be able to sink a shot at the last second to win the championship game — both will make it look easy. And the firefighter will be able to throw the ladder, grab the victim and negotiate them to safety.

The human mind consists of layers of behavioral development. And it is repetition that causes the brain to convert behaviors into habits.

Researchers believe personal development consists of 5 percent cognitive insight and 90 percent structured repetitive drills and exercises to establish new skills or enhance existing skills and behavior.

Changing behavior or improving skill performance sometimes requires that old habits be extinguished and new, more effective habits be learned. New habits require new connections in the brain and this requires structured repetitive practical drills.

The goal for instructors is to run drills until students can demonstrate the skill. That drill is then practiced until the new skill or behavior displaces the old, until it is assimilated.

Diminishing skills

A new skill or behavior is fully assimilated when it can be demonstrated effortlessly, without resistance or reactive emotional stimulation.

But even when we can demonstrate the knowledge of a skill is stored accurately for many years, the ability to perform that critical skill starts to degrade in as little as seven days.

The ability to perform skills and the experience associated with a specific skill impact the rate of degradation. The speed at which it degrades is determined by the skill level — you lose experience at a faster rate at a higher level.

At some point in a firefighter’s career, they return to a skill they had once mastered only to discover that now it is largely gone. What once seemed effortless now requires tremendous effort for a much less potent result.

The time it takes to lose a skill is proportionate to the time it took to learn it. We see this all the time with the example of riding a bike or playing a musical instrument that we practiced for hours in our childhood.

We don’t really lose these skills, although like our old bikes they rust a little.

There can be a momentary hesitation when we sit down on the bike seat or at the keyboard, but there’s a muscle memory that eventually takes over.

It’s a leadership thing

In contrast, if we’ve just developed a new skill, it’s quick to fade. This is called surface learning, as it’s easily erased. How long does it take to lose a skill? The answer isn’t that appealing, because it depends on the skill.

The challenge in skills execution for a fire company is having all the members pretty close to the same operational level for the company to be effective and productive.

Some are going to see more of a loss than others when first performing a skill after not doing it for a long time. There are many factors that will affect this, including the level of expertise the person originally achieved and their own motor abilities.

Yet, a firefighter’s ability to sustain high level of skill performance is directly related to the structured repetitive training.

None of us know when we are going to walk around the corner and face a life-and-death situation where our training must take over if we are to survive.

The issue of training and the requirements associated with training firefighters requires committed leaders who hold their firefighters to the highest performance expectations. To get there requires practice, practice and more practice.

This article, originally published Nov. 7, 2016, has been updated

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.