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Qualifying your fire apparatus drivers

Use task books to document, evaluate and improve apparatus driver training and operational skills


Basic fundamental driving should be discussed early on in any firefighter’s career.

Photo/U.S. Department of Defense

Driving a fire truck is very serious business. And while I think everyone would agree with statement, there are quite often people assigned to drive a fire apparatus who may not have the required training or demonstrated that they can truly perform the task.

Why does this happen? Sometimes staffing levels come into play, and a company officer puts a non-qualified person in that position, even if temporarily. This places not only department members at risk but also the public we serve.

Any fire department, career or volunteer, must have apparatus operators who possess even the most rudimentary driving skills and can perform them safely. Further, fundamental driving skills should be discussed early in any firefighter’s career, ensuring that they understand what is acceptable and what is not on the road.

NFPA 1002: Standard for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications establishes the minimum qualifications for driver/operators, and should be followed as closely as possible when developing a new driver-training program.

Test basic apparatus operating skills before advancing

Before they are allowed behind the wheel, an emergency driver training course (such as the Emergency Vehicle Operators Course) should be conducted to ensure the candidates have basic driving skills down.

Once we have department members who can operate fire apparatus safely, more advanced skills, such as pump operation and hydraulic calculations, can be taught. Frequently, departments will have a pump manufacturer representative provide a training course on their particular fire pump to ensure that all questions can be answered accurately.

However, most departments have veteran drivers who are more than qualified to teach and mentor newer drivers. This same group can be called upon to develop drills that not only teach members new skills but also keep everyone safe.

Training to develop apparatus operation skills and safety

Once you have new drivers trained in the department, that doesn’t signal the end of training. Far from it. Training must continue, with drills that build muscle memory and develop consistency.

One basic drill has the engineer spot the engine next to a fire hydrant, charge a pre-connected hose utilizing the booster tank, establish the correct pressure, then connect to a permanent water supply (hydrant). All this should be done in under 2 minutes. This drill, when performed over and over, will develop a skill that the driver can perform at any time of the day or night, without mistake.

It can also become a competitive drill amongthe crewmembers attempting to complete every element of the drill with the lowest time. Of course, all your crew will serve as the referee, not letting you miss one item. So if you don’t put the wheel chock out or you miss establishing the correct pressure, your cohorts will be glad to point it out.

For the truck companies, they should focus on skill development, like raising ground ladders, or even develop aerial ladder drills that require the driver/operator to raise the aerial ladder and extend it to a specific floor for a quick rescue.

One skill that we often skip is actually driving the apparatus, as most feel that they are proficient in that area. However, there are some situations that must be practiced over and over. Other drills should be established to ensure all areas of operating the apparatus are covered and improved upon.

Measure and document success with task books

We have all heard of the old, salty driver assigned to drive Truck X for the last 10 years and what a great driver he is. However, when asked at a fire scene one morning to perform some operation with said truck, he could not carry out the task. Then we come to find out that he never knew that the truck could even operate in that manner.

This is where task books come into play. Task books can be used to document every aspect of what the driver and fire apparatus are expected to accomplish. This serves not only to establish guidelines for driver training but also to provide a means of documentation for annual job performance reviews.

How does it work? Each driver in the organization receives a driver/operator task book that contains a detailed list of objectives the candidate is expected to meet. They review and drill to ensure they have knowledge, skills and ability to execute. They are evaluated to document performance and skill level. The task books are then added to the driver’s file to prove their ability to serve in that position.

Final thoughts

Driving a fire truck is very serious business. Once we make a decision to allow an individual to serve as the driver, we have committed them (and ourselves) to taking ownership of crew and community safety. This is why it is so important to drill and document performance. We owe that to both the public and our own department membership.

Drive safe!

This article, originally published in 2017, has been updated.

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.