‘Stop training firefighters like they’re becoming Marines’
Fire departments must design a new paradigm for their future existence – one more focused on prevention
I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled, “Stop Training Police Like They’re Joining the Military,” with the subtitle: “If policing is to change, the spotlight must turn toward police academies, where new recruits are first inculcated into the folkways of their profession.”
Police departments don't prevent crime; they react to it. And that's part of the current public criticism of police departments: Police departments are not doing enough to prevent crimes from happening.
The author of The Atlantic article, Rosa Brooks, is a law professor and writer who also completed training at the Washington, D.C., Police Department Academy to become a Reserve D.C. police officer, patrolling alongside regular D.C. police officers in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Those experiences led her to write about what she sees as the link between paramilitary police training and the abuses that served to trigger this summer’s protests.
Brooks went on to write, “When police recruits are belittled by their instructors and ordered to refrain from responses other than “Yes, Sir!,” they may learn stoicism – but they may also learn that mocking and bellowing orders at those with less power are acceptable actions.”
In her opinion, when police academy instructors order recruits to do push-ups to the point of exhaustion because their boots weren’t properly polished, those future police officers are learning that the organization places a high value on attention to detail. But those same recruits may also conclude that the infliction of pain is an appropriate response to even the most trivial infractions.
Brooks postulates that while most police recruits may enter their entry-level training as idealists, their training can ultimately produce cynics, even before they take their place among the rank and file. And while most police officers can go on to have a career where they never having to fire their weapon at another human being, there are others who will inevitably get the wrong lessons from their paramilitary training, and find their career ended by a tragic incident like that of the police officer in Minneapolis.
There are some law enforcement leaders who are questioning the value of conducting police academies using paramilitary training practices. One example cited in the article describes how a former King County (Washington) Sheriff, who now heads that state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, has introduced an academy-training approach centered on a vision of police as guardians, not warriors. That training method, called LEED (Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity), uses role-playing exercises to teach good listening skills, how to have and show empathy, and how to de-escalate tense situations to achieve successful end results – end results that leave everyone they encounter with their dignity intact.
LEARNING FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT
How does this connect to the fire service? Brooks posits that training – and the accompanying mindset – must begin at the entry-level.
Following The Atlantic article’s premise, I propose that fire departments should stop training their current entry-level firefighters like they’re becoming Marines – “warriors” fighting the “beast” (fire) – and then expecting them to act like Peace Corps volunteers, that is, engaging in fire prevention and other non-suppression activities that require personal interaction with members of their community.
Now more than ever, fire departments should be training firefighters to be equally adept at fire prevention and public education as they are at fire suppression. No longer can most fire departments afford to spend the bulk of their entry-level firefighter training hours on fire suppression topics at the expense of fire prevention topics.
Fire departments must also take steps to change their organizational culture from that of being a fire suppression-centric organization to one that is more fire prevention-centric. When less than 1% of the typical fire department’s operating budget is dedicated to fire prevention activities – code enforcement, fire investigation and public fire and life-safety education – one must wonder, how can that organization really be effective at preventing fires?
Any fire department that has the word prevention in its mission statement or slogan, but is not doing substantial work in that realm, is operating under false pretenses. You must put your money where your mouth is.
THE TIME HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER FOR CHANGE
The coronavirus pandemic has turned our world upside down. More people are spending more time at home, and we know that the home is where preventable fires exact the greatest toll when it comes to fire deaths, injuries and property losses. Further, studies show that more people staying at home – and the accompanying isolation from family and friends – means more cases of domestic violence, child abuse and suicides.
Dr. Anne Bisek is a clinical psychologist in Fremont, California, and a member psychologist of the Fire Service Psychology Association (FSPA). During the most recent FSPA monthly meeting online, Dr. Bisek remarked that, based on her experiences, we’re likely to see the isolation and mental stresses and economic stresses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic having three significant impacts on people:
- Enduring isolation that contributes to increased cases of addiction (e.g., substance abuse, alcohol abuse, gambling);
- Continuing male job losses that contribute to increased cases of domestic violence; and
- Continuing economic instability that contributes to an increase in the number of suicides.
Responding to the fallout from all the above is taking a tremendous toll on the mental health of many firefighters and EMS personnel. Those stresses are being exacerbated by job losses, schools being closed, and the uncertainty about when it will be safe to reopen those schools.
And now we’ve come full circle, as those school closings also mean that many children are not getting any sort of fire and life safety education, the one venue to which many fire departments direct their limited fire and life safety education efforts.
A CASE STUDY FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICE DEPARTMENT
Whenever someone asks me what’s a good resource for a fire department to use to improve their community outreach, my go-to response is Barrie (Ontario) Fire and Emergency Service (BFES). I consider my fire service colleague up there in Ontario, Canada, Samantha Hoffman, Acting Chief for Fire Prevention, and her people to be “rock stars” when it comes to fire and life safety education.
Why? BFES is a great example of a fire department that’s worked to achieve a better balance between fire suppression and fire prevention. They’ve got commitment to fire prevention from the fire chief down to the newest firefighter, and their efforts to provide fire and life safety education to their community take place daily, as shown in the content of their Facebook Page.
The folks at BFES are also very adept at creating original programming, especially the use of videos they produce and post in collaboration with their local cable provider, Rogers TV. Check out their weekly production, Clear to Respond: Barrie Fire & Emergency Service.
But if there’s one big lesson I’ve learned by knowing Chief Hoffmann and working with her on some projects, it’s that if you want your fire department’s people to “run with the big dogs” when it comes to fire prevention and life safety education, you have to “train them when they’re pups.”
And your organization must have the same commitment to fire prevention that it has for fire suppression. So, are your firefighters more than just warriors?
Editor’s note: Do you agree that prevention should receive more focus in the fire academy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.