Firefighter training can be fun and serious at the same time

By taking an innovative and creative approach, training drills can maintain their educational value while also adding an element of fun

A few months ago, I came across a video of some firefighters playing a game of Jenga with a stack of wooden blocks and the hydraulic rescue tool. The video made the national news and has been viewed online over a million times.

Firefighters play Jenga with Jaws of Life

JAWS OF LIFE JENGA: Illinois firefighters kill some time with an impressive round of "Hydraulic Jenga." Congrats to the team whose structure is still standing!

Posted by ABC News on Friday, December 15, 2017


Training goals and outcomes should also be clear and measurable. But, when firefighters only train as a form of testing, several negative outcomes can result.
Training goals and outcomes should also be clear and measurable. But, when firefighters only train as a form of testing, several negative outcomes can result. (Photo/USAF)

The firefighters are clearly having fun in the video, but they are also completely focused and serious about their task. While trying to win at the game, they are also developing subtle skills with rescue tool operation; skills that could help them save a life under different circumstances.

There are many ways to train with rescue tools. Some might involve just demonstrating basic competence – starting the tool and completing different drills with it. Other types of training might involve scenarios where firefighters use the tool to gain access into vehicles or buildings available for such training. These are all valuable ways to achieve training goals, but why not mix it up sometimes and do something that is fun and educational, like hydraulic tool Jenga?

It seems like some fire departments tend to go to one extreme or another when administering training. They are either dead serious – no fun allowed, ever – or they are so loose and casual that having fun becomes the main purpose. Both of these approaches can be problematic.

The problem with hyper-focused training

Training is serious. It must always be done with safety as the highest priority. Training goals and outcomes should also be clear and measurable. But, when firefighters only train as a form of testing, several negative outcomes can result.

One outcome of this approach is increased anxiety in firefighters. When training is a test that one must not fail, firefighters may try to play it safe in training situations where they may not immediately show proficiency, which can limit their ability to develop new skills. In this situation, training becomes less about learning new things than it is about demonstrating skills already mastered.

The other negative outcome of taking a serious approach to training is that it can be boring. When the same training is done in the same way time after time, firefighters may end up tuning out and go through the motions rather than being fully engaged.

The problem with entertainment-based training

The other extreme is a training approach that focuses on fun, competition and even freelancing. The obvious problem with this approach is lack of control and structure, but there may be other issues as well.

Some fire departments like to emphasize individual competition in training: who can do a drill the fastest, for example. There are skills that can be measured in this way, such as timing individuals when donning their protective gear.

But firefighting is primarily a team activity, and for more complex competencies, the fastest is not necessarily the best. Emphasizing and rewarding individual achievement in a purely competitive atmosphere can undermine larger training goals. Such an approach can also lead to safety shortcuts and even injury.

Training is always serious, but it can also be fun. Studies show that people learn better and retain more when the learning environment and methods are varied, not simply repeating the same drill over and over. Developing new approaches to training can bring out creativity in department members as well as motivate greater engagement.

How to implement educational, fun and safe training

One way to mix up the training process is to get everyone involved with developing exercises and drills. Training does not always have to be developed and led by the training officer with the members following along dutifully. Department leaders can assign members of all ranks a specific training topic and then work with them to come up with a fresh approach to that training goal. These types of assignments will heighten commitment among members and may bring forth some skills and abilities that you did not know you had among the ranks.

So, go ahead. Try new training ideas. Add game show modules to classroom training. Build your own Ninja Warrior course for PT. Change up instructors and locations for training drills. Play a round of Jenga with the rescue tool.

If you try something new and it doesn’t work out that well, just try something different next time around. And if you come up with a great idea for training that is safe, fun, and effective, be sure to share it with others, starting with the comments here.

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