Probationary firefighters: What they should know at 6 months
Probies should be able to demonstrate proficiency with stretching a hoseline, VEIS, masking up, and key policies and procedures
Our probationary firefighters are often very young, very inexperienced, and lack not only the knowledge of the fire service but a lot of life skills as well. In other words, our probies have a lot to learn.
Probies need to learn and demonstrate all types of knowledge, skills and abilities in their respective organizations. In more progressive organizations, a probie is given some type of task book and possibly a mentor to work with so that there is a clear pathway to success.
Sadly, in many others, there is no roadmap. Instead, probies are expected to just “figure it out.”
Consider how difficult this would be for a probie. In my organization, for example, firefighters perform literally hundreds of tasks. We know streets and neighborhoods, we can recite our fireground policies, we have hazmat and technical rescue teams, we can perform intricate rescues, and we do EMS. We also perform fire inspections, teach fire safety and community CPR, operate engines and ladder companies, and so much more. To ask a probationary employee to memorize all of this is unrealistic, so we break it down into simpler tasks so that they are that much more successful on the fireground.
This isn’t to say that the other tasks aren’t important, but we must prepare our new firefighters in the basics before we go on to the other parts of our work.
So, what are probies’ priorities? What should a good probie know after six months of being on the department?
From my perspective as a company officer, any probie should be able to perform these basic tasks at the halfway point of their probationary year: stretching a handline properly, masking up efficiently, performing vent-enter-isolate-search, and knowing the basic policies and procedures that pertain to them. Let’s start with the last one.
Policies and procedures knowledge
Every probationary employee should be familiar with the basic policies and procedures that pertain to them. The big ones to memorize:
- Hours of work
- Chain of command
- Uniform and grooming standards
- Any operational policies that they are expected to work under (e.g., how to operate portable and mobile radios and how to operate emergency vehicles (such as ambulances or support apparatus)
Obviously, there are more policies than these few, such as FMLA leave rules, grievance procedures, and perhaps tuition reimbursement, to name a few, but these aren’t as pertinent as knowing where to report to, who to report to, what to wear, and how to work. At six months, the probie should be able to recite those without any issue. If any other issues creep up, such as needing to take leave or to fill out a training request, then those items can be handled on an as-needed basis.
“The fire goes as the first line goes” is an amazing quote from the late and great Andy Fredericks, and it cannot be more simply stated.
Probationary employees must be dialed in on how to deploy attack lines. Failure to do so can (and will) lead to a delay in getting water on the fire and can easily throw the fireground into chaos. Work on each movement so that they can be counted on when needed. Will it be perfect? Ideally, yes, but because our probies don’t have years of fires under their belts, we know that when the tones drop for their first fire, their adrenaline will likely dump and they will have a suboptimal stretch. As officers and firefighters who are training our probies, we can anticipate their actions and quickly correct any issues before disaster strikes. Yet if that probie has never touched a handline on the rig, or worse yet, has been bogged down by the PowerPoint version, the results will not be in your favor.
Ensure that the probie can flake the line, knows where to drop the hose, how to move the working length to the door, and how to call for water. Put the probie under some pressure by timing their actions. As the probie shows improvement in their skills, drop the time down so that they can make the stretch in under 60 seconds. Add obstacles such as vehicles in their way, or better yet, get out into the community and stretch hose on actual properties so that the probie is prepared and builds muscle memory with good quality reps.
Masking up efficiently
Gear drills are the bane of existence to many firefighters, but their importance cannot be overstated. From rapid intervention concepts and drills to simply masking up at the door, a good gear drill can build great muscle memory for probationary firefighters.
The problem is that many gear drills conducted on the apparatus floor are just like the academy, which is unrealistic to how we dress on a scene. At the fire school where I teach, recruits don their PPE with it sitting in front of them on the bay floor. However, in the real world, our SCBAs are in brackets in the seats of the rig. We don’t wear our helmets in the cab while riding to a call. What I would suggest is to do a couple of gear drills to ensure the probie can put their gear on, but then move on to a more realistic approach.
A great drill is to put their gear on as if they were coming off the truck and then have them mask up for time. I prefer to mask up with gloves on and shoot for a benchmark of less than 30 seconds, which is easily achievable with a little bit of training. Once that mark is achieved, drop the time. Again, the whole idea is to build reps and muscle memory so that when they catch their first fire, the concept of masking up is seamless.
Bonus: Take 100 feet of attack line and accordion fold it on the bay floor. Shoulder it with full PPE on, pick a random door in your bay, and have the probie walk to it as if that door is the front door to a house. Have them flake the line, simulate calling for water, and mask up for time.
Performing VEIS involves some specific skills that must be executed quickly and efficiently in order to have a successful operation. The probationary firefighter must know how to deploy a ladder to a specific window target by themselves. Therefore, they must know how to retrieve the ladder, plus ladder locations and ladder throws. They must mask up, vent the window, clear the window and enter to perform the search. They must have a concept of how to appropriately search with their hands, not with a tool, plus how to locate a bedroom door to isolate the space.
For my organization, VEIS is likely to occur within the arrival of the first one or two companies. We don’t have time to pick our players, so if the probie is riding the truck that day, then they must be able to perform the tasks. When victims are trapped, we cannot wait for more experienced firefighters to arrive. While it may seem reckless to send a probationary firefighter into a window for search, please understand that they are likely searching a bedroom and a little bit of a hallway not more than 10-15 feet away from a more experienced firefighter or officer. That senior firefighter or officer is monitoring fire conditions, guiding the probie to search spaces, and reminding them to isolate the room to create lift and improve visibility, which creates a safer space for both firefighters and victims.
I understand that there are important tasks to train on like mayday procedures or EMS protocols. If you are an officer or leader in your company, you must train on the tasks that you are most likely to encounter. However, understand that EMS protocols are written down for a reason – so they can be referenced and followed. Further, mayday procedures are vital, and the probie should know how to call a mayday and summon help, but probies just six months in should not be expected to be skilled in or calm enough to render aid in trans-filling an SCBA or performing an SCBA facepiece swap. They should instead know how to drag a downed firefighter, or drag a victim for that matter, which can be taught in their VEIS portion.
The key for probationary firefighter success is having some type of benchmark to know how they are progressing through the process. Simply throwing them to the wolves in a sink-or-swim mentality will set them up for failure or, at the very least, develop bad habits that must be broken and retaught later.
As a company officer, ensure that your probies know basic policies and procedures, how to deploy an attack line, how to mask up quickly, and how to perform a VEIS so they can show proficiency in these basics early into their career. After all, the mission of the fire service is to serve others and to protect citizens from fire. By training on these four basic tasks, when the tones drop for their first working fire, probationary firefighters will be ready to execute the mission and save lives and property, and to have a great start in a fulfilling career.