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How to snap firefighter training ruts

Worst-case scenario planning and hands-on training is great way to mix things up while honing basic skills


A fire officer recently contacted me to inquire about fresh approaches to training. He was concerned that routine training was boring and not engaging for the department members and he wanted to try something new.

One of the ideas I offered him was to do scenario-based training. This is not a new idea. Most departments do classroom training that is based on fire/rescue scenarios, either actual or imagined. Most promotional assessment centers include these types of exercises as well.

One way to make this type of training more engaging and fresh is to take it to its limit when developing the scenarios. The goal is to construct incidents that would stretch the department in terms of resources and preparation.

Creating these training evolutions is easy. They can be focused on challenges based in your own response district. And because it is collaborative in all aspects, the training tends to be highly engaging, challenging and fun.

What can go wrong?
To begin, gather your crew and choose a target hazard in your response area. For example, say you have a small airport as part of your district. Now start brainstorming as a group to construct a plausible worst-case scenario associated with that target hazard.

It’s easy to begin. What’s something bad that can happen at an airport? A plane crash, obviously. And if you’re responsible for emergency coverage at an airport, you have probably already trained many times on first response to an accident involving a plane taking off or landing.

But this is only the beginning of the scenario. Now start adding on the layers. What would make a plane crash more complex and difficult in terms of fire response? The possibilities are vast — bad weather, darkness, passengers with special needs, hazardous cargo or a midair collision.

Now think about things that would hinder effective response. For example, what if a key bridge is under construction and you have to figure in a detour? What if you’re running with one fewer firefighter than you normally have on your crew? What if you witness a motor vehicle crash when you are en route?

Now consider possible onsite complications. The gate allowing access to the runway is locked. The closest hydrant malfunctions. Someone reports a possible bystander who is not accounted for.

You get the idea.

During this brainstorming phase, be creative, but keep it plausible. Probably you have considered one or two of the potential complications before. But you probably have not imagined them all happening on the same call.

Do a run through
Once the worst-case scenario has been created by the group, now you can start deconstructing it as you walk through your response. Address the scenario as if it really happens just the way you created it. What will you do at every step of the way?

Some of the complications you have imagined will be easily addressed. Maybe you have clear protocols in place for when the crew is running one person short. Maybe you have already pre-planned good detours around possible road construction.

Some of the factors will be more challenging. Try to remain detail-oriented as you develop your response. What will you really do if the hydrant malfunctions?

To just say, “Find another hydrant” is not good enough. Which one will you choose? Do you have enough line to pump effectively from it? Will you need to relay pump?

Once you have talked through all the challenges associated with your worst-case scenario, it is time to get out and actually do hands-on training. For instance, if you have realized that relay pumping might be required, maybe it’s time to get out and practice that skill.

Worst-case scenario training has a number of benefits. It pushes crews to prepare for the extreme worst incident, which after all could happen any time.

The training emphasizes collaboration and creativity in its development and response rather than competition and rote learning. It forces crews to get out of a rut they may have fallen into with routine calls.

And the possibilities are endless. What is the worst thing that could happen at the shopping mall, the high school, the public park or the paper mill? Really considering these scenarios gives purpose to doing training on basic skills that might otherwise seem routine and boring.

This approach to training can bring new motivation for practicing old skills and learning new ones.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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