Get your training on track: How to manage volunteer fire department training

How to identify the right trainer, build a program and encourage ownership in the process


The traditional volunteer fire department is being eroded by many factors: a lack of volunteers, increased regulations, a spike in call volume, a lack of funding and a missing sense of community among members of the department and within the greater community.

I would argue that, other than funding, many of the factors impacting the decline in volunteerism stem from issues pertaining to leadership, training and the perceived value of joining a local volunteer department.

Here we’ll focus on improving the leadership and management of training, ultimately serving to increase value in performance but also retention of members.

Build your training around local threats and seasonal historical data.
Build your training around local threats and seasonal historical data. (Photo/Jason Caughey)

Training management

As the late Chief Alan Brunacini would say, “Firefighters hate two things – the way things are and change.” The great chief was not wrong. Go to any fire station in the world, and sit at the kitchen table and you will find an engine company or truck company solving the world’s problems – or complaining about the world’s problems.

In a volunteer or combination department, the opportunity to sit around the kitchen table happens less frequently. Instead of the kitchen table, crews huddle around the engine or in the corner of the apparatus bay on training night having those same discussion. For many organizations, the weekly or monthly training night is one of the few times members get together – and it doesn’t always go smoothly.

Let’s face it, the weekly or monthly training meeting often look something like a junior high school first dance: The music’s playing in the gym, all the boys are standing on one side of the gym and the girls are on the other side of the gym. We all know what we want to do, move to the middle and dance, but we are all afraid to do so, until someone makes the first move.

Our version: Your members mill around, standing on the edge of your apparatus bay conducting small talk with their friends. They all know something productive should be occurring, but they are afraid to make the first move. Training should not and cannot look like this. There must be a designated adult who is passionate about training assigned to manage your training program.

This is where managing training to provide value becomes incredibly important. Here’s where to begin.

Find the right trainer

It’s vital to identify someone to take the lead on department training. Keep in mind, the right trainer might not be the most experienced member. The right person for the job typically has the following traits:

  • Servant leadership mentality
  • Passion for excellence
  • Team player
  • Humble
  • Hungry
  • Organized
  • Heart (caring)
  • Energy
  • Coach
  • Communicator

Once you find the right person, the onus is on them to build the program.

For many organizations, the weekly or monthly training night is one of the few times members get together.
For many organizations, the weekly or monthly training night is one of the few times members get together. (Photo/Jason Caughey)

Build the program

Building a program should focus on the organizational needs to serve the community. Many times, organizations build programs that only focus on the fun stuff or use the cool tools, like rope rescue. These training evolutions are great for motivation, and you can sprinkle them throughout the year, but a solid program begins with the training that directly applies to your response area.

Tip: Build the training calendar by quarter, not month to month. When developing a quarterly approach, use call data history to help identify trends in call types. Then be proactive rather than reactive, focusing on areas of need for your department.

At my department, we build our training around our local threats and seasonal historical data. For example, we see an uptick in chimney fires and motor vehicle accidents in November and December, which are in the fourth quarter of the year. To prepare for those calls, the third-quarter training calendar focuses on vehicle extrication and chimney fire tactics. By training the quarter before, we are better prepared. We do the same thing for wildland fire season, which starts in the second quarter of the year for us; thus, we train on wildland during the first quarter of the year. With this said, we reinforce the skills in the appropriate quarter to maintain proficiency. The bottom line: Use data to help you build a quarterly training program.

The key to any successful program is preparedness. The more organized and prepared you are, the better the outcome. Some related points that resonate strongly with members:

  • Be on time;
  • Be prepared;
  • Maximize and be efficient with their time; and
  • Make training engaging and active.
When you train the trainers and they take ownership of their training evolutions, you will be amazed at the success of your program.
When you train the trainers and they take ownership of their training evolutions, you will be amazed at the success of your program. (Photo/Jason Caughey)

Train the trainers

Once the program is built, it is critical that you, as the program manager, train the trainers or, as we call it, coach the coaches who will be leading the weekly and monthly training. You cannot do it all yourself. When you train the trainers and they take ownership of their training evolutions, you will be amazed at the success of your program.

We utilize a coach’s academy – a form of in-service training for instructors – to reinforce concepts and training practices with our identified trainers. This helps provide consistency in the training and continuity in our membership.

A critical bond

Training is a critical bond that helps build your culture and organization. If you want a strong, healthy organization, look to training as one of the most important components of your organization. To make training successful, it must be managed, built and reinforced.

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