When setting up training exercises, first ask your members what they’d like to train on. This serves two purposes: 1) It lets each firefighter know that there will be a drill and, 2) it gives them an opportunity to take an active role in the drill topic or scenario. Photo AP Photo/The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken
As company officers, we don’t necessarily need firefighters who can recite each of our standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) verbatim. What we do need: firefighters who can perform a variety of tasks, at a moment’s notice, without hesitation and with minimal supervision. And the quickest, easiest way to develop firefighters who can function in this way is to train them properly and regularly.
In this article, I’ll discuss several drills you can perform with your firefighters to ensure they remain at the ready, and I’ll suggest a few techniques for how to run a successful drill.
Drill #1: Reading Knots
Our department recently conducted this search rope drill. The objective was to teach our firefighters a practical knowledge of “distance and directional indicator knots on the rope.” To begin, the officers instructed each firefighter to don full PPE and blacked-out facepieces. The officers then arranged the couches, tables and chairs in the firehouse kitchen/sitting room, and laid a search rope around the room and under the table. One at a time, the officers directed each member to the middle of the room to disorientate them. The members were then instructed to find the search rope in the room and “read” the next set of distance/directional knots they encountered. The members were each told to state out loud how far along the rope they were and use their gloved hand to point toward the direction of egress. It was as challenging as it was fun for the firefighters (we only broke one lamp and one picture frame), and it was quick and easy to set up for the officers.
Drill #2: Layin’ Line at the Firehouse
How about a quick engine company drill? On your way back from the next call, have all your firefighters put on their gear as if they were responding to a working fire. When you arrive back at the firehouse, have them quickly stretch an uncharged hoseline into and around the firehouse, particularly in spots where they’d need to crawl and/or make several turns (up or down a staircase makes it more interesting and, if the hoseline can be safely charged without damaging the firehouse, that would be even better!). The objective should be to get the line to a certain location (pre-selected by you), while on air, in the shortest amount of time possible.
Drill #3: A Friendly Competition
Are your firefighters becoming complacent? How about a friendly yet competitive game of seeing who can don their gear the fastest and be completely ready for a working fire? This would include bunker boots and pants; hood; coat; SCBA with facepiece on and regulator in stand-by position; ear flaps down; collar up and sealed; gloves and chinstrap in place—all under 90 seconds. For the winner, offer a small prize or perk.
How It’s Done
There are a few easy steps that can help you run a successful drill. These are simple, yet effective ways I’ve found to make sure valuable training time isn’t wasted.
- Plan ahead: Before you start any drill, think about what it is you want to teach or reinforce. Limit your topics to two or three key learning objectives (undoubtedly others will creep in during the session, which is fine). Tip: Keep a few “canned drills” in your back pocket that have been successful in the past, just in case plan A doesn’t work out. Examples: a hands on SCBA emergency escape maneuver drill, a radio “urgent” and “mayday” drill, a hydrant connection drill, or a water-loss drill. These will help you out tremendously—especially when the chief shows up to supervise.
- Set up the drill: At the start of the tour (or drill session), ask your members what they’d like to train on. This serves two purposes: 1) It lets each firefighter know that there will be a drill and, 2) it gives them an opportunity to take an active role in the drill topic or scenario. Tip: Ask the members to choose something they’re not 100% comfortable with, a skill or task that, if a chief asked them to perform immediately, they might feel uncomfortable completing (honesty is crucial here). This trick will help lead to productive learning and may give you an idea of what to drill on.
- Let senior members assist and/or run the drill: Their knowledge and experience is invaluable. And by letting the senior members assist you, you’ll be showing the younger members how important it is to emulate a senior member and to have a positive attitude about training, and the job in general. Seniors will also exude a certain amount of enthusiasm that younger members will notice and hopefully absorb. Lastly, you’ll be showing the senior firefighters that they’re respected and necessary within the company/department.
- Question what was learned: This is one of my signature techniques and one of my favorite as well. At the conclusion of a drill, ask each member to name one thing that they learned from it (and don’t be afraid to mention a thing or two yourself—no one should ever stop learning in this profession). This will force members to internally review what just occurred and the learning that took place. And it will reinforce the major key topics (which hopefully match your pre-planned learning objectives). It will also let you, as the officer/training officer, know if your plan and drill were successful.
One Last Tip: Get Creative!
Training, like anything else, can become rather dull and/or repetitive, which allows your firefighters to become bored with and even opposed to training. So to prevent this from happening, remember to use your imagination and get creative. For example, rather than having your members stretch and operate a handline in a parking lot, how about bringing that same hoseline through a maze or jungle gym at a local playground? Or, is there a house or commercial structure under construction in your area that you can stretch lines through?
Another idea: Perhaps there’s a commercial establishment in your area where you can get used wooden pallets and plywood? If so, flip the pallets over and nail the plywood onto them for a cheap (free) makeshift roof assembly where members can practice flat roof saw cutting operations.
For SCBA drills, try purchasing a roll of Glad “Press ’n Seal” plastic wrap for a quick and non-damaging way to obscure facepieces. And keep in mind that SCBA drills can be done almost anywhere as long as it’s dark, confined and crowded. But remember, safety should always be our first concern in any drill. Obscuring SCBA facepieces does just that—obscures. Firefighters can very easily crawl into danger in and around a firehouse. The person supervising the drill cannot get distracted.
Training Never Stops
If you think training is a waste of time, or that you do too much of it as it is, ask yourself: Would you rather have a firefighter with 10 years of experience or a firefighter with one year’s experience 10 times?
The point: Drill, drill, drill! And they don’t have to be major productions. Having a short, round-robin discussion at the kitchen table can be just as productive as a large-scale drill that uses smoke machines, burn structures, etc. Keep the drill short and sweet, and don’t be afraid to use the “K.I.S.S.” method (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Firefighters absolutely benefit from daily drill periods.
Officers likewise benefit from daily drills because they help determine where members are on the learning scale, which allows officers to develop more meaningful, productive exercises. Officers can also create more inclusive drills to grab and keep an individual firefighter’s attention if needed, or use members to help conduct the learning.
Remember: Learning in the fire service never stops. If your troops are bored, complacent or under-trained, you may make all the difference.