The Volunteer Playbook

Photos by author.

By Matt Beakas

It’s drill night, and already members are taking bets on what’s going to happen. Joking about the last time we did this drill. Heck, some are probably wondering how long it’s going to take. Unfortunately, for many departments, a mundane and repetitive training schedule has created this mindset. The easy solution for many training officers is to create new training, brighten it with the latest and greatest buzzwords, and jump right in. From an educational perspective, this is completely wrong. In a classroom setting, we don’t give students the most complex issue to deal with or circumvent without first assessing their baseline knowledge.

How do you determine where your members are at by bypassing simple skill assessments?

Establishing Your Knowledge Base

One of the easiest ways for departments to create a new training program is to take notes from the education field. Most schools today are driven by standardized testing and data collection. Controversial or not, you cannot argue with the results and trend data these tests produce. The question becomes, how do you collect data in the firehouse setting?

Easy. Competency tests can become the foundation. Choose a random training night, and organize several skillsets into a hands-on practical. This event needs to be organized and kept secret among the planners and evaluators, especially if you want to honestly assess members’ skillsets. Nothing makes members cringe more than the old “pop quiz” surprise but, in all honesty, every run adopts that same mentality, preparing for the test ahead. Lastly, you as the planning committee need to organize measurable objectives based on your current standard operating procedures and guidelines into a simple scoring system for each station.

Data Collection to Drive Instruction

After your testing is complete, I can almost guarantee the foundation and core of all members will be shaken, but now the dirty work begins: dissecting your skill station results. Dare I say think of National Registry scoring, passing, and critical fails? Are you seeing trends? Are members struggling with the same skills? Perhaps are your results all over the place? No educator or officer wants to look at student and firefighter results and see failing marks. However, the failing results suffered here are going to prevent crucial mistakes in the field.

Building a Training Curriculum

After your assessment group has examined the information from your competency skills test, it’s time to start building a training regimen around those results. First, you’re going to find individuals who scored extremely high in one area. After all, everyone has their little niche in the fire service. The issue becomes use of that knowledge. I’m a big supporter of getting those with knowledge into teaching positions so that knowledge and experience are passed on. However, as an educator, I know not everyone can get up in front of a group of people and lead an effective training session. On the other hand, identifying and using these individuals can produce amazing results.

It’s also possible that your results will be scattered and across the board. Don’t panic! There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to training. Identify where your department is currently, what your members need to know based on protocols, and plan for where you want to be in the future. Chart 1 represents what we in the education field call Bloom’s Taxonomy, the process in which we learn. I’ve adapted it for the fire service, mainly to help those involved in training and education. This way, those responsible for teaching and training can understand how the process of skill and knowledge development takes place.

Chart 1 can be applied to numerous scenarios for the training officer or chief. If you take an honest look at this chart, it’s every run we go on or problem solving scenario summarized in real time. The chart depicts how trainings should be organized. You must consider the ways in which people learn and the ways they retain information. Some are tactile, hands-on learners, while others are auditory or visual learners. Creating a balanced delivery of instructional approaches will allow your message to take hold and gain greater depth within your staff.

Differentiate for Immediate Growth

Once your staff has begun to grasp your individual training needs, start small. Your training needs to be objective based. What do you want members to know at the end of the training? Is future training planned to build on previously taught skills? Think progressive, but stay within yourself. We are notorious for wanting to train on the latest and greatest but often get away from the foundation to be successful.

The competency tests you conduct also pave the way for something called differentiated instruction. This approach requires you to break training into small groups to target specific member needs. Dropping the “one size fits all” approach addresses member questions and concerns, especially ones that may be uncomfortable in a larger setting or that tend to get overshadowed by veterans. It allows newer members to get small group instruction and hands-on tool time, time they may not get within a large group.

Differentiating allows you to use member strengths in certain tested areas by allowing those members to instruct those who tested low in specific areas. Allow your assets to become active stakeholders, and you’ll be amazed at just how quickly you can improve the culture of your department. By erasing the fixed mindset, we establish and develop a growth mindset, a mindset that values enhanced education and collaboration. That is mindset we in the fire service all strive to be in.

Matt Beakas is a volunteer firefighter with Middleton Township in Wood County, Ohio. His mission is to bring mentoring skills from his education background to improve and strengthen volunteer departments across the country. For assistance with strengthening your department’s training and better serving your community, contact him at

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April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4