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Developing fire prevention competencies for firefighters through self-study programs

A sample self-guided program serves as a model for new firefighters learning the ins and outs of life safety-focused NFPA 1035


Even with an increased focus on fire prevention, we know that so long as the fire tetrahedron exists and humans roam the earth, there will be fires.

Rob Ostermaier/Daily Press

In my article, “Stop training firefighters like they’re becoming Marines,” I contended that fire departments should move from being a suppression-centric organization to that of an organization that had more balance between its “fire suppression side” and its “fire prevention side.”

My comparison of the policing model and firefighting model in terms of training was intended to illuminate the correlation between the focus of training and the focus of the trainee’s career tenure.

Tanya Bettridge, a fire and life safety educator and founder of TB Ignite Consulting, commented on this concept: “If police departments train well-rounded individuals to react calmly and strategically, that is what their community will get. If a fire department trains its fire recruits para-military style solely as competent suppression personnel, that is what your community will get. Provide multi-faceted training, which includes fire prevention and life safety education, and that is what your community will get.”

Never was it my intent to diminish fire suppression training or lessen the importance of discipline, quality of training, or training standards – rather simply highlight the complementary component of fire prevention and life safety efforts. Nonetheless, the article aroused a great deal of passionate responses from the FireRescue1 community.

In this article, I’ll offer an optional training methodology that any fire departments can use in making that cultural change without compromising its commitment to ensuring that its newest firefighters have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be proficient firefighters.


The fire service is fortunate in that there are three main ways its members can save lives.

“Think of those elements – fire suppression, fire codes, and fire and life safety public education – as legs supporting a stool,” Bettridge explained. “If a fire department really wants to ‘walk the talk’ of saving the most lives possible, it should aspire to have a strong stool that’s equally supported by all three legs.”

Thanks in no small part to the increased use of lightweight building construction, dwellings loaded with synthetic materials (which provide a greater fuel load that burns more quickly), coupled with the public’s general apathy toward fire safety, people have much less time to escape a fire. Likewise, those three elements have also increased the risk to firefighters, as fires have the capability to rapidly grow and reach their flashover stage just as the first firefighters arrive.

But even with an increased focus on fire prevention, we know that so long as the fire tetrahedron exists and humans roam the earth, there will be fires.

Bettridge noted that we can reduce the number of fire-related deaths and injuries for both civilians and firefighters by reducing the number of preventable fires, adding, “With improper human behavior being the root cause for roughly 75% of residential fires, investing in public fire and life safety education and other fire prevention efforts (e.g., fire code enforcement and fire inspections) is not just in the community’s best interest, it’s also in the best interests of firefighters.”


One of the principle arguments offered by readers of my initial article was that adding fire prevention training to entry-level firefighter training would create an undue burden on those training programs. Many fire departments, both career-staffed and volunteer-staffed alike, already have more than enough subject matter to “squeeze into” their entry-level training programs, they asserted.

But there is another proven methodology that can work: Delivery of fire prevention training as a self-directed program that follows a firefighter’s entry-level training.

At the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire and EMS Department (CFEMS), for example, every firefighter must become qualified to drive and pump the apparatus at the station where they are assigned, per NFPA 1002: Standard for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, Chapter 5.

That Motor Pump Operator (MPO) training and education takes place after a firefighter has completed their entry-level training where they attain NFPA Firefighter II certification and receive their fire station assignment. The program is a self-study course that the firefighters work through to completion with their company officer, with their fellow firefighters providing the practical instruction for driving and operating the fire apparatus.

The newly certified firefighter then has 10 months to complete the CFEMS Motor Pump Operator (MPO) program and successfully complete testing processes for both driving the pumping apparatus and operating the fire pump. During those 10 months, a firefighter also learns how to drive their pumping fire apparatus and completes the CFEMS Emergency Vehicle Operator Course (EVOC). Only after successfully completing both their EVOC and MPO course work, and completing the respective testing processes, are they authorized by the department to drive and operate fire apparatus.

I spoke with two of my former colleagues back in Chesterfield, Taylor Goodman and Stuart Smith, who were involved in the MPO and EVOC programs. They shared that while the program now included required courses from the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (Driver Pump Operator and EVOC courses for which probationary firefighters return to the academy for instructor-led classes), the self-study model is still used to reinforce that training and provide CFEMS-specific training to become an authorized apparatus driver and MPO.


So, what could a self-directed program for fire prevention training look like? A good starting point would be to thoroughly review the requirements of NFPA 1035: Standard on Fire and Life Safety Educator, Public Information Officer, Youth Firesetter Intervention Specialist and Youth Firesetter Program Manager Professional Qualifications.

Specifically, NFPA 1035, Chapter 4, Fire and Life Safety Educator I, provides the general requisite knowledge that such a self-study program should address. Those topics include:

  • Fire behavior
  • Organizational structure, function, and operation
  • Human behavior during fire and escape planning
  • Injury causes/prevention
  • Community risk reduction
  • Injury prevention strategies
  • Learning theory and educational methodology, and standardized fire life safety messages
  • Natural and man-made hazard issues
  • Current Homeland Security topics
  • Hazard identification and correction
  • Current Fire Protection system and devices
  • Emergency reporting
  • Liability issues
  • Public relations
  • High-risk audiences, behaviors, and accessibility
  • People-first language and social and cultural trends
  • Community resources
  • Personal image and professionalism

That’s quite a bit to tackle at one time, so let me break it down for any fire department willing to take the initiative. A self-study course should provide every firefighter with the knowledge and skills to:

Like the Chesterfield MPO program, firefighters could follow a self-study model, working through course material with their company officer, with fellow firefighters providing practical instruction for working with the public. That training should also include role-playing scenarios for firefighters to demonstrate competency.


I think firefighters getting training and education in those topics would make a fire department’s “three-legged stool” an even better stool, one made of better wood. Most of those NFPA 1035 topics have several things in common because they require interpersonal skills, a desire to work with people and groups of people, and a need to become more knowledgeable about the community at large and the risks that exist.

And what fire department couldn’t benefit from having everyone in the department equipped with those kinds of skill, especially those fire departments that are becoming engaged in Community Risk Reduction programs? Many fire departments are serving communities that are becoming more socially and economically diverse, and they would benefit from having new firefighters learn how to better engage with the public they serve.

More importantly, at the onset of their career, those new firefighters would be learning to see the big picture, not to mention how the fire department must fit into that picture if it is to be successful in accomplishing its mission.


In this article I’ve provided one example of an instructional methodology that a fire department could use to provide all its personnel with good foundational knowledge and skills for fire prevention and life safety topics at the onset of their career. With the continuing advances in online learning designed with firefighters in mind, like that from Lexipol’s FireRescue1 Academy, fire departments should find it easier to provide their personnel with this necessary and important skill set – an act that can truly make that “three-legged stool” a reality.

Editor’s Note: Has your department tried a self-study approach? Do you have other ideas for engaging new members in life safety efforts? Share in the comments below.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.