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Beyond 1041: How to elevate your instruction style to best engage firefighters

Tips for instructing firefighters via coaching on the training ground, teaching in the classroom or virtual platform, or presenting with PowerPoint


The training ground requires coaching, which is a more interactive and hands-on form of teaching.

Photo/Jason Caughey

As the fire service continues to change, so too do the ways we choose to teach, coach and train our volunteer and career members.

NFPA 1041: Standard for Fire and Emergency Services Instructor Professional Qualifications provides an excellent foundation for new instructors, and I strongly recommend that all instructors seek out certification and accreditation while advancing their career. But while NFPA 1041 is a great foundation, we must go beyond the standard to create a personal system that is effective and engaging for students.

Why is this essential for fire service instructors? Let’s face it, we have all sat through the mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations where the instructor essentially just read off the slides. This is not only ineffective and unengaging, it’s an insult to your students to not be prepared enough to add some energy into a presentation.

Here we’ll cover some ideas you can use to be more effective in your training style.

Note: Developing your personal training style doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to grow and learn what works for you. Further, it’s important to recognize that your training style should change depending on the teaching format or environment. Are you presenting information or are you teaching skills or procedures? Are you in a physical or virtual classroom or are you on the training grounds?

Let’s now review the differences among three styles of instruction – presenting, teaching (classroom and virtual) and coaching – and tips for each style.

Presenting: Tips to increase energy

When you serve as a presenter, you are sharing new information, generally in a large setting with very little interaction between yourself and the students. This form of education has its place but can have limited impact on daily operations. This form of instruction typically uses PowerPoint.

To make your presentations more impactful, I suggest the following tips:

  • Move around the room: Create energy by moving past the podium and making eye contact with the students.
  • Use props: Pre-stage props around the room or auditorium, and call attention to the props during your presentation – another way to add energy.
  • Limit PowerPoint slides and words: This prevents you from simply reading the slides. Instead, use short phrases, pictures or single words to drive your presentation.

Classroom teaching: Tips to keep students engaged

Teaching takes talent and hard work. As the son of two teachers, I find myself marveled at the effort it takes to create an engaging classroom, especially when the topic isn’t particularly exciting. We have all had the teacher that put us to sleep – don’t be that teacher!

Here are some points to help you create an engaging physical classroom:

  • Change up the seating: Most classrooms are set up in the traditional rows of tables and chairs. We all know that the firefighters will fill the back rows up first until the dreaded front rows are the only seats left. Change it up, create learning pods, workstations, or even take the table and chairs out of the room all together. The point is, break the seating mold.
  • Create learning opportunity on all the walls, or even the ceiling! Pre-stage flip charts, graphs, photos or other items on all four walls. This will allow you to move about the room as you are instructing, prompting the students to follow you.
  • Use lighting and sound: Most classroom have horrible florescent lighting. Switch it up, find alternative dimmable lights, utilize portable LED lights to provide excitement or pinpoint critical areas of the room. Sound becomes important, too. Use your voice in a commanding manner and, if needed, use a sound system to ensure that all students can hear you.

Virtual teaching: Tips to leverage a new tool

Because of COVID-19, the fire service pivoted to virtual classrooms for our continuing education. This is one highlight from COVID-19 and, in fact, the use of the virtual classroom in many cases has been a great addition to our organizations. With caution, I say the virtual classroom is a valuable tool.

Here are some points to help you improve your virtual classroom:

  • Establish rules: We use the SMART acronym: Sit-up, Mute your mic, Activate you brain, Relate to the topic, and Turn on Camera. Your classroom is more organized if you establish your rules.
  • Learn your platform: Whether you’re in Zoom, WebX, Teams or another platform, become a master of how to utilize all the functions. Use the whiteboard, raise hand function, break out rooms, and other additional features. One key point: Learn how to mute all.
  • Mind your lighting: Use a forward-facing light to shine on you, as this provides better image quality.
  • Control your background: Be aware of distracting backgrounds. Use a digital background if necessary.
  • Hone your sound: Use a USB microphone to improve your sound.

Coaching: Tips to enhance training ground learning

For most of us, the training ground is the best and most fun area to impart knowledge. This is where the meat and potatoes of the fire service training should occur. One key difference here: The training ground requires coaching, which is a more interactive and hands-on form of teaching.

Some key points about the training ground:

  • It’s not about you: The training ground is not about how great you are at a skill; it is about you being a coach and coaching the skill. I see countless instructors teaching on the training ground by holding the tool or nozzle showing how great they are. Get the tool out of your hand and into your students’ hands, and then coach them. Just like a basketball coach during March Madness coaches their players from the sideline, you should be coaching from over the students’ shoulders.
  • Identify the work: The fire service has lots of fun skills to learn, but in many cases, those skills might not be appropriate for your organization. Focus on the work that will make the greatest impact on your community.
  • Build the system: Create visions of perfect performance. Use video to build a library of perfect skill performance to share with your students so they can emulate the skill.
  • Set expectations: Create performance accountability and expectations through timed evolutions. Hold everyone accountable to performance times.
  • Make clear that it’s not a test: Fireground is training not testing. Set students up for success to build confidence versus testing for failure.

Put in the effort

It’s vital for fire service instructors to fine-tune your instructor skills to develop effective and efficient training programs. Developing your training style requires you to study and learn what works for you. The bottom line: The energy you put into your instructor style will reflect upon you and your organization. Take the time, it’s worth it!

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.