Training Needs Assessment for Volunteer Departments

One of the more difficult positions in the fire service is that of training officer. The major challenge for any training officer is to make the training pertinent, interesting, challenging and realistic, but this is particularly difficult when dealing with volunteers, paid on-call or part-time staffing, because their time is limited.

Of course, training is required for all departments, no matter whether they’re career or volunteer, part- or full-time. According to OSHA, “The employer shall assure that employees who are expected to do interior structural firefighting are physically capable of performing duties which may be assigned to them during emergencies.”

OSHA also states: “The employer shall provide training and education for all members commensurate with those duties and functions that members are expected to perform.” Failure to comply with these standards may result in sanctions and/or fines levied against the department and liability being incurred by the chief, training officer and other department leadership.

I believe these two statements are, or should be, the foundation for any training program, because they address the needs of the firefighter as well as the department.

If you examine the OSHA requirements more carefully, you’ll notice that the wording stresses the need for assessments. For example, how do you know if someone is “physically capable of performing duties”? The only way to know for sure is to perform annual physicals conducted by a physician.

Another example: How do you know which types of training and education are “commensurate with those duties and functions that members are expected to perform”? The only way to determine the types of training and education needed is to assess department services, community expectations and the individual.

I’ve heard over and over again that training is “killing the volunteer firefighter.” I would argue that training is saving the volunteer firefighter—if it’s done right. Training is difficult to schedule and to commit to, which is why departments should carefully consider the services they’re currently providing. If you discover that your department is training for a service that probably isn’t needed in your response area, such as ice rescue in a consistently warm climate, you should probably re-evaluate your area’s needs and adjust training accordingly.

When a department decides to add a service, such as confined-space rescue, each individual who will perform confined-space rescue must be able to demonstrate competency on an annual basis. This annual evaluation is part of most training programs and is essential to maintaining firefighter skill sets.

A Note about Down Time
When developing a training program for volunteers, the training officer must maximize every minute of training time, which also means they must minimize down time. To do this successfully, instructors must arrive 15–30 minutes prior to the start of the training exercise, so they can set up and be ready to go right away, and they must conduct training in shifts. For example, if the exercise is scheduled to start at 1800 hrs, instruct one group to arrive at 1800 hrs, and a second group to arrive at 1830 hrs. That way, the second group doesn’t have to stand around and wait for the first group to complete the drill.

If the training officer and instructors work at reducing down time, they will find that most firefighters will be more motivated to attend training.

What Do You Need?
To determine the type and amount of training needed, every department should conduct a training needs analysis. This four-step process will require a significant time commitment by the department leadership and the firefighters, but ultimately it will not only focus your department on its specific training needs, it will also determine each firefighter’s current skill level. With this knowledge, you can adjust your program so that training needs are met for both the firefighters and the community.

1. Create a list of services
The first step in the process is to create a list of the services your department provides. This list could include structural fire suppression, motor vehicle extrication, wildland fire suppression, emergency medical services, tanker operations, etc. These services are pretty common for most departments.

Other services, such as hazmat, confined-space rescue and other forms of technical rescue, require you to determine the particular level of service that needs to be provided. There are three levels for each of these categories: awareness, operations and technician. Each category requires the employer to conduct a specific level of individual training and to supply equipment specific to each level. Note: Not all fire departments are financially capable of providing specified training and equipment. In some suburban/rural areas, several departments may need to pool their resources to conduct specialized training and/or increase their level of service.

2. Determine required skills
Once the level of service has been determined, then the training officer and fire department leadership must determine the skills required by individual firefighters to be competent in delivering those services. Note: Some skill levels will be determined by company performance, so it’s important to include in the assessment a system to evaluate the individual as part of a team.

For the purposes of this article, we will discuss how to assess a firefighter who is participating individually and as part of a team during interior fire suppression operations. Skills assessed may include:

  • Don PPE, including SCBA.
  • Advance a hoseline from the apparatus to the second floor of a structure.
  • Perform primary search operations with and without a hoseline.
  • Force entry through a residential door.
  • Remove, carry, raise and climb a ladder to the second floor of a residential structure.
  • Open a window for ventilation purposes.
  • Start a positive-pressure ventilation fan and place in proper position.
  • Control utilities for a residential structure.
  • Perform salvage operations.
  • Perform overhaul operations, keeping in mind the need to determine the cause and origin of the fire.

For the analysis to be fair and consistent, the training officer and leadership must select a standard instrument, evaluation sheet or checklist to conduct the evaluation and identify critical steps in each evolution. These instruments are provided by several publishers of the books used in Firefighter I and Firefighter II certification courses. Review each instrument offered and make them your own by determining which steps are critical to your particular evaluation. For example, you may require your trainees to pull up their collar and secure it while donning their PPE. If a firefighter forgets this particular step, they will be failed and either retested or retrained.  

The complete checklist may look like this:

  1. Don pants and boots, including suspenders, according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.
  2. Don hood (must be down around the neck).
  3. Don coat with collar up and closure secure on coat and collar. (Critical step: All closures must be secure, including collar. Failure to complete step results in test failure.)
  4. Don helmet with chin strap under chin. (Critical step: Strap must be under chin. Failure to complete step results in test failure.)
  5. Don gloves.
  6. Donning completed within one minute.

By adding critical steps to the process, the department reinforces critical safety steps that could save the firefighter’s life. This is one way to enact change within your department. Let your firefighters know the measures that are critical to your department and then hold them accountable for failure to comply.

Once you’ve identified the skills necessary to be an interior structural firefighter, the training officer should communicate with the firefighters, explaining what the department is trying to accomplish with the evaluation. A review of the evaluation instrument with the firefighters is an important step to the evaluation process. If firefighters don’t understand how and why they’re going to be evaluated, the evaluation may later be determined to be unfair and not a true evaluation.

3. Demonstrate skills
At this point, the firefighters actually demonstrate the skills identified as necessary to becoming an interior structural firefighter, while the training officer and instructor mark the evaluation sheet accordingly. Note: The skill checklist outlined above shows only part of the entire evaluation process. A complete checklist includes every skill that needs to be evaluated.

Each skill should be evaluated in the context that you expect the firefighter to perform at the emergency scene. For example, if policy requires firefighters to don their PPE before mounting the apparatus, then you need to conduct the evaluation next to the apparatus. If the volunteers are allowed to respond directly to an emergency scene, then the evaluation on donning PPE should be conducted at the back of their vehicle.

Firefighters often don their SCBA in seated positions while responding, but they may also don SCBA from the side of the apparatus. Each department must decide which position to conduct the evaluation based on how they would really perform at an emergency situation.

4. Develop a training calendar
The fourth and final step in the training needs analysis is the development of the training calendar. Planning is not one of the more exciting tasks associated with being a training officer, but it’s critical. One crucial step in creating the calendar involves giving adequate notice to instructors. Providing advanced notice to training instructors ensures the quality of the training program by allowing instructors to plan ahead and customize their exercises to the department’s needs. Don’t ask an instructor to conduct a drill session 5 minutes before training is scheduled to start. The instructor may perform poorly, which will embarrass them, but more importantly, you may waste the students’ time if the instructor isn’t prepared.

For training to be delivered in an effective manner, training officers and instructors must remember that volunteers’ time is extremely limited. They must also remember the instructional design model they were taught early on in their training days. Failure to follow the four steps of preparation, presentation, application and evaluation as outlined may mean a less than stellar performance by the instructor and a less than enjoyable training experience for the firefighter. However, if training officers take the time to prepare, and follow the four steps, they can save time and save lives—and that’s something all volunteers can appreciate.

Phases of the Evaluation Process
Although the evaluation process doesn’t always happen sequentially, it can be viewed as cyclical with four phases: preparation, assessment, evaluation and reflection. Note: The evaluation process involves the training officer as decision-maker throughout all four phases.

In the preparation phase, decisions are made that identify what is to be evaluated, the type of evaluation to be used, the criteria against which firefighter learning outcomes will be judged and the most appropriate assessment strategies by which to gather information on student progress. The training officer’s decisions in this phase form the basis for the remaining phases, but those decisions must remain flexible throughout the evaluation process to accommodate department and student needs.

During the assessment phase, the training officer identifies information-gathering strategies, collects firefighter assessment instruments, administers assessments to the firefighter and collects information on any progress made. The training officer continues to make decisions in this phase. They must also identify and eliminate any bias from the assessment strategies and instruments, and determine where, when and how assessments will be conducted. 

During the evaluation phase, the training officer interprets the assessment information and makes judgments about firefighters’ capabilities. Based on the judgments or evaluations, training officers determine the content of future training programs.  

The reflection phase allows the training officer and other fire department leadership to determine the overall success of the evaluation process. Specifically, the leadership evaluates assessment strategies and instruments used. Such reflection helps the training officer determine where to make changes/improvements for future assessments. 

Skill Evaluation Drill
Note: This drill is to be performed by two firefighters simultaneously.

  • Don PPE before mounting apparatus.
  • Don seatbelt.
  • While belted in, firefighters shall don SCBA. Low-air alarm shall be sounded and noted. Personal distress device (PDD) shall sound and be noted.
  • Don gloves.
  • Upon arrival at the simulated scene, firefighters shall safely dismount the apparatus using appropriate handrails and steps.
  • Based upon orders from command, Firefighter 1 will pull a 1¾" handline and advance toward the fire building. Firefighter 2 shall secure a forcible entry tool and proceed toward the fire building, checking for kinks in the line.

Once both firefighters have donned their SCBA facepiece, checked the seal, placed the chin strap under their chin and are on air, Firefighter 1 shall bleed the air from the line while Firefighter 2 forces entry and joins Firefighter 1 on the handline as the back-up. (Note: Prior to entry into an IDLH atmosphere, unless there’s a confirmed safety issue, at least two additional firefighters shall be on scene before anyone advances into the IDLH atmosphere.)

Firefighter 1 shall wait 5 seconds after the door is forced open to allow for the fire to light up if it’s going to. If it lights up, apply water; if it doesn’t, advance into the structure to complete the primary search, utilizing the standard right- or left-hand search pattern. If/when a victim is found, rapidly remove them from the fire area.

Note: This drill can be modified to assess fire suppression operations only if the life hazard is removed.


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April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4