3 ways to blend academy instruction with real-world fire response
Elevate the NFPA standard with pooled experiences from instructors to create forward-thinking, modern fireground training
As a fire and EMS instructor, I am often privy to conversations from my colleagues that what we teach in the academy is not practical to today’s fire environment. Such comments come from line firefighters, seasoned fire officers, fellow instructors and chief officers – and to some extent, they are correct.
When working with recruits, academy instructors must follow the job performance standards as outlined in NFPA 1001: The Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications and transform them into firefighters, with all the requisite knowledge of the position. This should not be confused with becoming a firefighter at your local fire department – and herein lies the crux of the issue.
If the IFSTA manual and other publications for fire and emergency services are the standard, and if so many current fire service leaders are unhappy with the education, then how can we blend academy instruction and real-world experience to enhance the learning environment? How can we put forth solid new firefighters from our academies who are more prepared to meet today’s fire environment?
The answer is to find where standards are vague and press into that void to teach solid tactics. Three immediate areas where this can be done: SCBA donning, hoseline deployment, and search and rescue.
Academy training vs. firehouse training
Before we detail these three opportunities, let’s take a closer look at academy training versus firehouse training.
Admittedly, we as instructors often aren’t doing the best job explaining the role of a fire instructor in a training institution to our colleagues in the firehouse. There is a vast difference between training at the firehouse and training in a trade school or certification program.
For one, when training at the firehouse in our individual companies, we can drill on specific topics that are unique to our organizations – like extrication. I can demonstrate the use of the equipment carried on our apparatus; highlight our specific policies procedures and staffing; and have members share their experiences from past extrications. That simply isn’t possible in a certification program, nor is it practical, since there is zero guarantee the recruit will work for a given agency or with certain equipment.
“All firefighting is local.” I heard this quote from a fire chief at a recent conference – and I agree. The daily staffing of an engine company can vary from department to department, as well as the hose loads, water supply and construction types based on various community needs. It’s the job of solid company officers, mentors and senior firefighters to take raw recruits and mold them into good firefighters within their organizations. However, it’s the job of fire and EMS instructors in trade schools to meet NFPA job performance requirements and teach the standards of firefighting so that recruits can graduate and pass certification exams. Only then can they begin their employment with a local fire department and dive deeper into our profession.
That being said, fire instructors do not simply pass students to generate more recruits on the street; they act with integrity to ensure that recruits pass minimum standards. While some of those standards seem well below the bar, this is where passionate and educated instructors can meet the realities of the fireground with IFSTA essentials.
Now, let’s review three opportunities to make this happen.
1. SCBA donning
The NFPA 1001 standard states that a firefighter must correctly don and use an SCBA. This vague description is ripe for enhanced instruction based on modern fireground practices.
Our state standard is to don the SCBA and breathe air in for 60 seconds. But is there any harm in teaching new students how to mask up with gloves on and shoot for a benchmark of 30 seconds or less? If we teach and drill recruits to don their facepieces with gloves on, to mask up quickly and efficiently, wouldn’t that yield better results on the fireground? I postulate that this is acceptable, so long as the recruit is graded on the established standard.
The law of primacy finds that when a student hears new information, they will remember, regardless of whether it was taught correctly or not. As instructors, we must recognize this law of primacy and use it to teach correct information so that it is fostered and repeated on the fireground. If we teach students how to mask up quickly, it will stay with them forever – and simultaneously meet the standard.
2. Hoseline deployment in a real-world environment
Our state standard is simply that a firefighter will deploy an attack line and advance it into a structure for fire attack. There is no specific method, mainly because, again, firefighting is local and staffing dependent. It would be grossly inadequate to specify four firefighters on every hoseline, when in reality, some departments are lucky to have two. Therefore, we can again mimic our fireground practices into sound education and provide a realistic learning environment.
Recently, a group of instructors and I taught hoselines and advancement. While we covered the standards and job performance requirements such as hose sizes, nozzle types, appliances and the like, we then expanded into moving and flowing. We taught students, over the course of 16 hours, how to knee walk, clamp slide and advance in a camella. We brought practices from our individual experiences so recruits could recognize how and when to flow a line, how to make a push, and how to maneuver a hoseline into a fire.
Did we violate or negate any standards or go against the manual? Absolutely not; rather, we used the manual as a springboard for more efficient education so that new firefighters are better prepared to be good nozzle firefighters on the attack line.
3. Search and rescue training rooted in experience
Finally, we can always improve our search training and education. The manuals I use for instruction define vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) as a high-risk tactic, and I would agree with many of my colleagues that there is fear-based rhetoric surrounding search. However, to some departments with limited staffing and poor-to-non-existent water supplies, it might be a high-risk tactic for them. Our NFPA standards are national standards, but our departments must work within local limitations. In my organization, VEIS is not a high-risk tactic and can be employed as necessary because we are well-staffed, trained and have a culture of aggressive fire attack and search, but the same cannot be said nationwide, unfortunately.
Within search education, we can inform recruits of the statistics behind search by using the metrics developed by search culture and the Firefighter Rescue Survey. We can teach the benefits of the tripod movement over crawling without compromising sound instruction for the beginner or jeopardizing the job performance requirements of the position. We can teach dirty drags since the standard is that victims will be located and removed (NFPA 1001, section 4.3.9) but doesn’t specify how, when or why.
Solid instruction, based and rooted in experience, will bridge the gap between “the book way” and “the real way.”
Teach the standards, but set high expectations
We need passionate fire instructors who can see the benefit of integrating modern fireground tactics into the curriculum, while not discounting the manual. Programs and manuals are part of entry-level fire service education used to mold people into firefighters by meeting specific job performance requirements as outlined in NFPA 1001. However, the standard is merely a minimum. It is not designed to be an unbridgeable gap but rather a framework that we can use to teach appropriate principles and practices as knowledgeable instructors.
The manuals and curriculum have obvious gaps, but those can be filled in easily – and arguably should be, to enhance the safety of our firefighters and improve our performance on the fireground. After all, our mission is to save those we’ve sworn to serve; therefore, we must promote aggressive tactics that are time-tested within the standards developed by our subject matter experts. Three easy areas to implement those tactics are within search, mask-up, and hoseline deployment and movement. These skills are not too advanced and should be requisite training for every firefighter who may find themselves on a nozzle.
The bottom line: It works, so teach the standards but set expectations high. Our citizens depend on it and our new recruits want it.