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How often should firefighters train on – not just with – their tools and equipment?

It’s helpful to develop a tool training schedule to ensure members’ skill remain automatic


Photo/Bob Graham

Open the compartments on your apparatus. How many tools do you see? Hydraulic extrication tools, ventilation fans, lifting airbags and struts, forcible entry tools, sampling equipment, ground monitors – the list is probably long.

These tools allow us to do our jobs, but when was the last time you trained ON, not just WITH, the tools? There is a difference, and it can be an important one.

Our equipment is precise and can require specific steps to ensure that it’s used the right way and as effectively as possible. Merely using the tools in training scenarios isn’t enough, as we often don’t just focus on the use of the tool but rather the broader evolution. Taking time to focus on a specific tool can help remedy this situation and ensure that all of us are as knowledgeable as possible on the tools of our trade.

From “on target” to slowed skills

When we first learn a new skill or are trained on a new piece of equipment, we are in that “on target” training window. Over time, skills and knowledge can erode, and our target pattern can become a little messy. We start to use equipment our way, not necessarily the right way. Small (often bad) habits we develop can cause us to become less effective or forget about seldom-used features in our tools. Additionally, the stress of an emergency call or scene can make it challenging to think through the operational steps, making it even more essential to train on a tool until its use becomes automatic.

Think about your initial rookie training and how much time you spent learning to don and doff an SCBA or don your turnout gear. The goal was that when you were responding, you could think about the response and not your equipment. You could only become this comfortable through repeated training on just that piece of equipment. The same theory can be applied to everything you find in your compartments.

For example, a car was wrapped around a street light pole at a recent vehicle accident. Upon arrival, I grabbed our voltage detector to ensure that the vehicle wasn’t energized. I fumbled with the controls on the device, slowing our response simply because I had not retrained on the detector in a long time – too long to feel like it was an automatic action. We had discussed it during other training and reviewed when we were expected to use the voltage detector, but I had neglected to turn on the device and actually use it.

Find your schedule

How often do we need to train on our tools? It depends on the complexity of the equipment. We can lose a skill or bit of knowledge relatively quickly, especially if it’s a new skill and we have only spent a short time on it. Too often, we train our members on a tactic or tool until they can simply perform the task. Ideally, we should drill on it enough until we can’t screw it up. This level of competency is essential to perform under stress. So, train and then revisit that training to make sure the skills are cemented and becoming automatic.

Following initial training, you can use a quick assessment to gauge how much knowledge is being retained, then set an interval to ensure that crews are retrained properly. Ideally, when you retrain on a skill, you should be at the point where it’s somewhat difficult to recall the information. Research suggests that earlier than that, the training is too easy and really won’t cement any neural pathways – and if you wait too long you are basically starting over.

This interval will vary depending on the complexity of the craft. Something as technical as a rope-rigging system will require more initial and frequent retraining than a hand tool.

It can sometimes seem simplistic to schedule training about a single tool, even a few tools. But you will see your members becoming more proficient, fine-tuning their skills, and they will start talking. Shared stories about using those tools on an incident can help us learn from past experiences – this may be the best outcome from these scheduled tool trainings.

Having a schedule can guide you on when and how frequently a specific piece of equipment needs to be checked. Look to the manufacturer to see if they have a recommendation for frequency of training. Respiratory protection equipment and gas-sampling meters often must be checked at the start of a shift or tested before use. Gas or battery-powered equipment may need to be checked each change or on some set interval in the setting of a volunteer department.

Some departments have a checklist used at the start of each shift that encompasses the checks needed for equipment at the beginning of a change. Then, one day of the week, a more thorough review of the equipment on that apparatus is performed.

Bottom line

Break out some manuals, get hands-on with some tools of our trade, and you will be more efficient and ready to respond.

Andrew Beck is a firefighter/EMT and shift training officer with the Mandan City (N.D.) Fire Department. Beck is a live burn instructor and teaches thermal imaging and fire dynamics across N.D. He is also the Mountain Operations manager at Huff Hills Ski Area, where he leads the outside operations teams. Beck has a background in crew resource management and has completed research on how people and organizations operate in stressful environments. Beck was previously a staff member for the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System.