The ‘5-Minute What?’: An informal training opportunity

How departments can incorporate informal training ideas into a more structured program


What was the last training program you attended where you really felt like you were invested in learning? Was it a conference session, an online class, a special presentation you paid for, a class at the National Fire Academy, college or local fire school, or just something you did while sitting around the kitchen table?

There’s certainly no shortage of training opportunities available to us. We are bombarded – daily – by announcements for classes and training programs: “Click here,” “Register for this,” “Only $25,” “Grant-funded opportunity,” “Don’t miss this opportunity” and on and on. There are not enough hours in the day to “not miss” every opportunity that comes our way.

But how do we manage all these training options, and how can we afford them?  

I observed a recent session where 25 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs were working together on firefighter rescue and CPR skills. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)
I observed a recent session where 25 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs were working together on firefighter rescue and CPR skills. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Integrating formal and informal training opportunities

There is considerable value in formalized classroom learning and online learning opportunities, and there are many factors to consider when planning a formal training program. For example, the location of the program, the name or credibility of the instructor, and the credit received are important to consider; however, the most important factor is the quality of training.

A classroom or online course simply cannot supplant the value of one-on-one live, practical training – training that involves interaction at the local level. Some of the best learning I’ve experienced has come from live-fire training, driving around the first-due area and even sitting around the kitchen table. 

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that there must be structure to your training program and schedule. What I’m suggesting is that the structure incorporates both formal and informal training opportunities that allow every member of your crew to learn and contribute to the learning process. There are great less-than-formal training opportunities, many of which you can take advantage of at any time (24 hours a day, on or off duty) – opportunities that will cost you little to nothing beyond time and energy.

In this article, we’ll review an informal crewmember-led training program that any department can implement, as well as three additional – and free – informal training ideas to consider working into your training program.

Explaining The 5-Minute What? informal training sessions

One of my Highlands County (Florida) Fire Rescue lieutenants, Jose Ibanez, recently initiated an opportunity for all department members – paid, volunteer, fire, and EMS – to participate in his training regime at the station. His approach, which I call “the 5-Minute What?” – is a great example of the type of ad-hoc training you can implement at your department. 

In Highlands County, we have the typical level of required and optional online learning to complete, as well as certification/credential requirements to maintain, but the local-level hands-on and practical interaction that “The 5-minute What” brings is priceless – and it’s free!

The 5-Minute What? is much like an icebreaker at a conference – an opportunity to let people break out of their comfort-cocoons and flourish in the larger group. The program includes everyone on duty, including mutual-aid stations, and rotates from place to place once a month.

The program started as a completely ad-hoc opportunity that gave every person who attended the opportunity to deliver a 5-minute (or so) instructional session to the rest of the team on any topic the crewmember wanted.

The training starts with breaking bread with each other at the dinner table – another hour (if you’re not interrupted by calls) of opportunity to discuss, learn and bond your crew. It then moves to the five-minute training sessions.

Lt. Ibanez explained that when he first brought people together, he sensed some uneasiness, but that after the first session, he could see people energized and asking when the next session would happen.

In Highlands County, the sessions are currently being conducted once a month as our new staffing patterns get up and running, but departments can use the concept at whatever interval works best for them.

At the first session, there were two volunteers, three paid firefighters, one paramedic and one EMT. The topics included scene management, airway management and firefighter survival, among others. In this case, with seven people, each presenting about 5 minutes, plus discussion, wrapped up in 60 minutes.

I observed a recent session where 25 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs were working together on firefighter rescue, gear removal and CPR skills, while others worked on using various methods to load a downed firefighter into a waiting transport unit.

Some sessions focused on firefighters training on gear removal and using various methods to load a downed firefighter into a waiting transport unit. (Photos/Marc Bashoor)
Some sessions focused on firefighters training on gear removal and using various methods to load a downed firefighter into a waiting transport unit. (Photos/Marc Bashoor)

Successive sessions have seen 20 people or more, with voluntary topics now chosen in advance, but still delivered at the voluntary option of the employees – so not all 20 presented most recently, but those who did were excited to deliver the topics they chose that had meaning for everyone there.

Learning to teach – and learn from fellow crewmembers

The training starts with breaking bread with each other at the dinner table – another hour (if you're not interrupted by calls) of opportunity to discuss, learn and bond your crew. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)
The training starts with breaking bread with each other at the dinner table – another hour (if you're not interrupted by calls) of opportunity to discuss, learn and bond your crew. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

I challenge you to not get hung up on the topics at first – if the crewmember feels comfortable delivering a short class on basket-weaving, then let that lead to (or push it toward) a class on ropes and/or rescue. Giving crewmembers the opportunity to teach about something that excites them is a priceless (yes, free) way to not only get them involved in the team, but also help develop their interpersonal and teaching skills. Further, crewmembers will undoubtedly learn something new. A firefighter should get a lot of value out of airway management, just as an EMT or paramedic should get a lot of value out of a knots class.

Lt. Ibanez aptly captures the essence of the “5-minute What?”: “Our success in merging our shift to include ‘all’ under HCFR has improved a great deal with individuals setting aside egos to participate no matter their designation. Moving forward, the success of the training will ultimately help us fulfill our duty to the citizens.”

3 ideas for informal training drills

The 5-Minute What? is just one example of informal training that any department can implement to expand its training program. Let’s now dive into other free training opportunities that are already available at your fingertips. While this is in no means meant to be an exhaustive list, the following are three quick, simple and inexpensive ways to add value to your training program:

1. Daydream command post: Remembering that our mission ultimately boils down to “bringing calm to chaos,” we don’t have to dig too deep to find out-of-control audio from command posts debacles all over the country. I used the “daydream command post” self/crew training method for years as a younger officer, especially once I became a battalion chief. At every stop light, stop sign or traffic jam, pick a building and mentally “burn it down” with your crew – or by yourself. Run through a scenario that involves your arrival, water supply, attack protocol, search issues, rapid intervention concerns, mass casualty arrangements, ladder placement, command post locations, medic unit placement, ingress/egress issues, etc. If you can think it, you can dream it! I’m quite sure those occupants don’t appreciate us burning down their places IN OUR MINDS; however, I’m also quite sure that many of our scenes ran smoother and were mitigated quicker and safer because of our “daydream training.”

Giving crewmembers the opportunity to teach about something that excites them is a priceless (yes, free) way to not only get them involved in the team, but also help develop their interpersonal and teaching skills. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)
Giving crewmembers the opportunity to teach about something that excites them is a priceless (yes, free) way to not only get them involved in the team, but also help develop their interpersonal and teaching skills. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

2. Preplanning (on proverbial steroids): Preplanning is one of your greatest training opportunities. Much more than an opportunity to gather contact and access information, preplanning should also be used to evaluate building construction, establish strategic “what-ifs” while you’re behind the scenes, become familiar with protective systems, water supplies and pressures, evaluate adjoining occupancies, and validate theories about locations. Take the opportunity to establish relationships with managers, coming back during off-hours to drill on hoseline advancement, search techniques, access validation – so many opportunities waiting for your asking. Granted, some occupancies and/or managers won’t be receptive to after-hours access, but some will – and you’ll never know if you don’t ask. You’ll also never be granted access again if you damage the property or abuse the access, whether intentionally or inadvertently, so be careful!

3. Mutual-aid training, including your community! When I worked in the National Capital Region (NCR), there was regular automatic mutual aid across borders – without compensation in either direction. With Washington, D.C., as the odd-one-out in that automatic-aid area, the rest of the region routinely shares apparatus and personnel across borders. DC does come out and occasionally requests in – just rarely and not on any automatic basis. The region is even slowly but deliberately working on a regional computer-aided dispatch (CAD)-sharing project, across state and county lines.

Automatic aid shouldn’t be just a response mantra. Training and preplanning can and should follow the same pattern. If you’re going to run together, you need to train together. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the NCR experience is generally the exception. Many municipal boundaries, including my own current area, separate service and therefore sharing on any automatic basis.

We should all be training and working together, with our communities, to provide the best service possible. When you do that next 5-Minute What? training night, invite those mutual-aid stations – and encourage them to invite you to their training. Work within your communities to build relationships for practical training opportunities, whether live-fire based training or simply for permission to stretch hoselines through courtyards, up stairwells or over ladders into roofs. The work will pay off in dividends for both training and relationships.

Maximize your training opportunities

The fire service is one of those professions where life-long-learning has real meaning and does have life-and death-consequences. Maximizing every opportunity to develop your craft is critical to your success and the success of your crew. And training doesn’t always have to be in a classroom or on a computer. Get out into your area: Daydream those incidents and ask your crewmembers to brainstorm their next “5-minute What?” session.

Editor’s Note: What do you think would make for some great “5-Minute What?” training drills? Share in the comments below.

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