Cultural competency: Why outside trainers fail to capture firefighters’ attention

While non-fire-specific training can be beneficial, trainers who fail to understand the needs of first responders will lose their interest


I was talking with a fire chief recently about some challenges they were having at their department, particularly with communications and customer service. The chief told me the department was planning to send its members to a training seminar put on by a major hotel chain that emphasizes customer service. The training, which would be very expensive, had a good reputation in the business world.

I advised caution on this plan.

It’s not that corporations don’t have good training options; some of it is state-of-the-art, with highly skilled facilitators and high-tech materials.

"Can firefighters get value from training that is not specifically geared toward them? Of course, but only if they are open to it and see direct application of the training to their circumstances," writes Willing. (Photo/Getty Images)

So, what’s the problem? In short, they’re not firefighters.

Can firefighters get value from training that is not specifically geared toward them? Of course, but only if they are open to it and see direct application of the training to their circumstances. And that’s the potential problem with taking a corporate approach to issues that specifically affect emergency responders.

The problem with generic training

Years ago, members from my fire department attended a city-wide training put on by consultants from the Disney Corporation – a major player in customer service, as well as product and service development. Most of the people in the room were all-in, as the trainer wove Disney-specific stories and images into the class material, with appropriate Disney enthusiasm.

However, the same was not true for my fire department colleagues. By the time she started sprinkling fairy dust on the audience, my coworkers were done – arms crossed, heads down, just trying to survive until they could be released.

To be fair, this was a city-wide training, not one specifically geared toward the fire service, and most of the people in the room seemed happy with it. It’s also entirely possible that if the trainer had been tasked with tailoring her training to firefighters, she could have done so effectively. But the more generic message she brought to the room that day simply did not work for the firefighters who were there.

How to connect with outside trainers

While some department members may be totally open to a different training approach, others may be more resistant to an outsider coming in and telling them what to do. A trainer who lacks an emergency services background can intensify this attitude among those who are already hesitant or resistant. Some firefighters will be waiting for the first mistake, the first wrong assumption or misuse of terminology, and then they’ll cross their arms, sit back in their chairs, and say to themselves, “This has nothing to do with me.”

How can you overcome this barrier while keeping your options open to new training opportunities?

  • Get first-person feedback. Especially when a department is planning to spend a lot of money on corporate-type training that may be known by reputation but not first-hand, it’s always a good idea to get some direct experience before making a large commitment. Send an advance team of department members of various ranks to the training and then do an honest debrief of the program as it may apply to your fire department. It might be necessary to do this several times before landing on the right option.
  • Educate trainers on the needs of first responders. Department leaders need to educate themselves about potential trainers, but they also need to educate the trainers about the fire service. If a trainer is not based in the emergency services, what is their background and experience? Try to connect with specific facilitators ahead of time and talk about the issues your organization is facing. A good facilitator will want to have this information. If a training entity is not willing to do this, they might not be the right people to work with.
  • Ensure potential trainers understand fire service culture. To some degree, firefighters speak a different language than the general public. When bringing in someone from the outside, as much as possible, you want that person to have language and cultural competency. Without this common understanding, the best intentions of a trainer may result in misunderstanding, dismissal or even hostility.

Find a common understanding

Engaging with diverse training options can be a good thing – it can bring a new perspective and challenge people’s basic assumptions.

But for any training to be effective, there must be a basic common understanding and shared language. This is especially true for those who might be most skeptical about the training and, in some cases, the ones who might need it the most.

For the best results with any outside trainer, but especially those from outside the emergency services, make the commitment to educate them about your organization’s specific needs, culture and history. If the trainer is not interested in learning this information, you might consider looking elsewhere to meet your training needs.

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