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7 steps to building a fire department annual training program

Build upon existing training standards, and incorporate community needs to craft firefighter training from the ground up


All fire departments need to spend a considerable amount of time developing a structured annual training plan.

Photo/San Ramon Valley Fire

By Matthew Clark, alumnus, American Military University

Firefighters must be masters of their craft in order to save lives. No matter what the emergency is, they are expected to arrive on scene and mitigate the situation as quickly as possible. To do so, firefighters must be jacks of all trades. On any given day, they could be faced with responding to a number of incidents, including the handling of hazardous materials, conducting rescue operations, engaging in structural firefighting, performing emergency medical operations and countless other situations.

With so many responsibilities, how do you efficiently and effectively train firefighters so they can perform all these life-saving measures while also meeting the growing needs of their community?

All fire departments need to spend a considerable amount of time developing a structured annual training plan. An annual training plan sets the standard for what training should be conducted throughout a fiscal or calendar year. Building out a plan allows fire departments to meet specific training requirements and effectively track training hours.

How to start developing a firefighter training plan

For my capstone thesis project, required to complete my Master’s degree in Public Administration from American Military University, I researched the important elements needed to build a successful training plan.

When developing a formal training plan, the first step is to evaluate and build upon existing training standards that have already been established in the department. Fire departments around the country are structured differently in order to meet the needs of their community, therefore, training plans must also be tailored to each department.

1. Know the regulations

During the development stages, fire leaders will need to research the requirements of the regulatory agency for the department. What training is required annually? How many training hours are required for each firefighter? What certifications are needed and how are they maintained?

For example, many departments want their training to meet the requirements of the Insurance Services Office (ISO). The ISO establishes safety ratings for communities based on what fire protection measures are in place such as the number of fire apparatus, the number of fire stations and the capacity of the water supply system within the response district. The better the rating from the ISO review a fire department receives, the lower the insurance premiums will be for the community. In order to receive a specific rating, the department must meet a minimum amount of training hours. Understanding such requirements from the outset means fire departments know the minimum training required to meet these regulatory standards.

2. Know the needs of the community

A department must also develop a training plan based on the specific needs of the community. For example, a community with a lot of industrial sites may have large quantities of hazardous materials. This means firefighters must have specific training based on the quantity and types of chemicals stored in their response district.

3. Build a template

Next, departments must build a functional training template. Having a template that is easy for all parties to understand and can be easily duplicated annually is critical. Most departments use a calendar format because it allows training officers to build training from month to month. A department can plug in the different shifts and then assign the training accordingly. Different months can then be curtailed to meet the seasons and then designated by certain objectives.

A common theme is to designate different months as hazmat, rescue, structure or a specialty of choice. This type of format presents continuity from year to year and allows training officers to plan according to seasonal changes.

After the template has been established it is time to start filling in the blanks. The content of the plan must be applicable to department needs and the needs of the community. It is critical to tailor the training from month to month to your specific department. A training plan for New York City Fire Department would not work for a rural fire department in Ohio, for example.

4. Build progressive training

Training plans must also flow and progressively build on the skills learned. A common flaw with training plans is that the same repetitive training is taught from year to year. Instead, it is important to teach the basics and then build from them. Breaking the year into sections is often a successful option. Develop skills and teach basic concepts in the first quarter of the year and then progressively build upon them for the remainder of the year. By the end of the year, a department can go from single company response training, to multi-company or multi-jurisdictional response.

As a department works from month to month building the training plan, the nationally required minimum training hours should be inserted in the training plan first. Then the region-specific training can be inserted. This will help ensure that the minimum requirements are met. Once at least the titles and ideas for each month are developed, the content can then be built.

5. Include course information from the start

It is critical to build, at a minimum, course descriptions for the monthly training. At a basic level, this will dictate the confines of the training. If just the titles of the classes are plugged in, it tends to leave a lot of room for interpretation. For example, if just “Ladders” was placed on the training plan, one shift may give a class on the parts of a ladder, where another shift may give a class on raising ladders. Prebuilt course descriptions dictate the training and what is expected to be accomplished.

The course descriptions ensure continuity across the department and specify what objectives must be met. However, it is important not to stifle the creativity of the company officers. Officers’ choice training is something that should be included throughout the year. This allows for officer growth and helps build the department at every level.

6. Seek input and build

If it’s necessary for a department to build a training plan from scratch, this should be done with input from all levels of the department. Those tasked with developing the plan should ask the company officers what training they would like to see. Discuss different training options and different resources that may be available. This helps develop ownership of the training and ensures a variety of training is conducted. After all this has been accomplished, it is then time to build for the future.

7. Regularly revisit and update the plan

With the training plan completed, the fire leaders can begin to prepare. Start gathering needed training resources months in advance so the training is as comprehensive as possible. After the training is completed, make notes of what worked well and what is needed to build on this training for the next year and into the future. Save the training, compile contacts, and use the information to produce better training year after year.

At the end of the day, the responsibility of the fire service is to save lives, stabilize incidents and conserve property. This is done through effective and structured training prior to the time of need. A well-developed annual training plan will ensure continuity across a fire department and will help build progressively upon learned skills. Firefighters and fire leaders must take it upon themselves to continually improve tactics and train new fire service members so the department can respond effectively to any emergency.

About the Author

Matthew Clark currently serves as the C-shift captain for the Williston (N.D.) Fire Department. Before joining the Williston Fire Department, he most recently served as a firefighter for the United States Air Force. Clark served as a captain, driver/operator and firefighter while being station at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca.; and Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany. Clark has since continued to serve as a firefighter for the Air Force and is currently attached to the 119th Air National Guard Wing in Fargo, North Dakota. Prior to his service, Clark worked as structural and wildland firefighter in Montana.

Clark has continually pursued higher education. He received his Associate’s degree in Fire and Rescue in 2009 from the University of Montana. In 2013, he received his Bachelor’s in Fire Science Management from American Military University, followed by his Master’s in Public Administration in 2017. Following his recent graduation, Clark has begun working towards a Doctorate of Education through Grand Canyon University. Clark is a contributor to In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. To contact the author, please email

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