Q&A: The life-and-death impact of firefighter training
Chief Ed Rush underscores the importance of focusing on simple and relevant drills
"There is a sign that hangs in many fire departments across the country and in almost every training division office. It says, 'Let no firefighter's ghost ever return to say his training let him down.'"
Chief Ed Rush shared this reminder of the life-and-death impact of firefighter training. Rush – chief of the Hartsdale (New York) Fire Department and director-at-large for the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section's Board – also emphasized that the chief must set the tone for the department that training is essential for survival – and lead by example.
"The chief should be out with the members participating in the training," he said. "If you are doing forcible entry, be the first one at the door with irons in your hand. Just as important, the chief must make the proper resources available. Make sure there is enough money in the budget, proper time is allocated, qualified instructors are available, etc. Be an advocate to show that training is the top priority all the time."
FireRescue1 connected with Rush to explore effective training drills, ways to manage funding challenges, and the roles of individual firefighters in promoting a culture focused on training.
Firerescue1: Why do you consider training to be fundamental to volunteer and career firefighters alike?
Chief Rush: When it comes to training, I see no difference between volunteer and career firefighters. Fire burns as hot and smoke is as toxic whether you are getting paid or not. We all must be professional in what we do.
The public’s life and property, and the life and health of our fellow firefighters depends on our proficiency at what we do. Most of our skills are perishable. If we do not practice them on a regular basis, we will not remain sharp and we will fail. As chief, my main job is to make sure everyone goes home safe at the end of the day. If all our personnel do not remain fully trained, there is a good chance that I might fail at that main job.
What are some of the most effective hands-on training drills you’ve seen utilized?
The most effective hands-on drills are simple and relevant. They involve practicing the skills that you are most likely to use and are most essential. Tactics like using a door simulator to practice forcible entry, throwing ladders on the fire station, or stretching handlines off the engine or from a standpipe develop muscle memory and allow you to perform at peak efficiency when it gets real.
What are the key pieces of equipment that you think are most useful for basic training evolutions? How about more advanced evolutions?
The old sports adage is, "You play like you practice." So, the key pieces of equipment for training are the ones most relevant to the job you do most. If you are an inner-city department, it makes no sense to spend a whole drill on using a brush rake. But if you have predominantly six- to eight-story occupied multi-family dwellings (OMDs) in your district, you better spend a good amount of time training with the apartment pack hose bundle.
For more advanced evolutions, the same theory applies, but you want to utilize the equipment that you would use for your high-risk/low-frequency events, such as a high-angle rescue.
How can company officers get creative when it comes to hands-on training?
The best training is as realistic as possible. Since we can’t go around setting buildings on fire to practice putting them out, our company officers need to constantly look for the next best thing.
Buildings being torn down in your district always provide great opportunities for forcible entry, ventilation, search and overhaul training. Live burn training is essential periodically, but for safety reasons, that is best done in an official burn building at a real fire training center.
One other area of creativity is to make the training fun. Sometimes you can add an element of competition between companies, such as who can force a door quicker or get a hoseline in place faster.
What is the individual firefighter’s role in promoting training among their crew?
Show up, be prepared, be enthusiastic, pay attention, participate.
What do you see as the biggest funding-related challenges to training for volunteer departments? Career departments?
Every department is under budgetary constraints these days. Taxpayers are all complaining that government cost too much. We are forced to fight for every dollar. The fire department is in competition with other municipal departments, and within the fire department, the training division is in competition with the other divisions.
It is "easy" to cut money from the training division because there is no direct reduction in service to the community. It is up to the department leadership to get the point across that cutting training has many more devastating costs, such as potential loss of life, injury or property loss. Our biggest challenge is to demonstrate to municipal leaders that these potential costs are real and much more devastating.
Where should departments look for training-related funding?
First, there is a ton of training available that costs very little if anything. There are many online classes, regional seminars, county and state-run courses. Just Google "Fire Department Training" and an almost endless list will be at your fingertips.
But some training does cost money. There are a lot of different federal grants available, such as the FEMA Assistance to Firefighter Grant and Fire Prevention & Safety Grant programs. Many states have different grant programs that can be used for training. And some companies and organizations such as NFPA, OSHA and your own insurance company have free training available. Partnering up with neighboring departments to run training can often be a cost saving.
What resources does the IAFC offer related to training?
One of the main sources of training offered by the IAFC is a series of seminars, including Fire-Rescue International, VCOS Symposium in the Sun, Fire-Rescue Med and the Wildland Urban Interface conference. There are a host of other online and instructor-led courses available that are too numerous to list here.