Instructors, like their students, need to be life-long learners challenging themselves to be better every day. (Prince George's County Fire and EMS Department photo)
Several years ago, during the skills portion of an in-house promotional evaluation, I watched an instructor correct a recruit’s ladder throw and inform him that he was incorrect in his deployment method. The unfortunate reality of what I saw was that the recruit was indeed correct, and the instructor was wrong in the method.
I had just returned from an update at the state academy that outlined the changes to the testing for IFSAC Firefighter I skill evaluations. The instructor I had observed had not been to a refresher in what might have been years. Because he was not teaching directly for the academy, there was no mandate for him to go to the annual updates.
Most of us may shake our heads at these scenarios, but I would posit that they happen more often than we think. My observation of instructors’ out-of-date teaching methods and theories made me quite concerned. How were we supposed to train our future replacements if we had no idea ourselves what they should be capable of?
We as firefighters are constantly training. Ours is a profession that requires us to maintain proficiency across any number of disciplines. We must constantly update ourselves on medical protocol changes from our medical directors, National Registry, and the American Heart Association. We are always looking forward into new vehicle technology and the use of high-strength metals in space-age body construction. Open floor plans and modern building materials are changing the ways we fight fires and combat higher fuel loading. If we expect our firefighters to evolve their abilities with the changing times, so, too, should we expect our instructors to evolve.
Most of the instructors I know in the fire service fit into a standard model. We found our passion for the job and realized we wanted to share what we knew to the next group of firefighters coming up behind us. With excitement and energy, we took our IFSAC (or Pro Board) Fire Instructor I; some of us even went on to Instructor II or III. At the very least, we now had 40 hours of instructor training and were unleashed into the service to teach and instruct. It is here that we find the plateau where most instructors rest and remain. I am certainly not implying they are stagnant; most of the instructors I know are experts in their fields and are constantly involved in reeducating themselves about their topics of instruction. They serve on committees and work to help rewrite our texts and methodologies.
I recently was at a state fire conference and took a class that touched on the different generations that are within the fire service today and how to better understand their points of view, wants, and needs. Assistant Chief Ben Smith from the Irmo (SC) Fire Department said something that resonated with me, and I paraphrase: “We can’t train today’s firefighters like we were trained, because the fire service we were trained for no longer exists.”
Most of us who instruct are either Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. Our methodology has been outdated for probably at least a decade. Although we are still subject matter experts and up to date as firefighters, our delivery has fallen to the wayside. We often assume what worked on us will work on the newest firefighters. We have, through no fault of our own, become part of the tradition unimpeded by progress.
One of the things that caught my attention when I returned to the classroom (as a student) was the difference in curriculum delivery. Access was instantaneous, through online delivery, digital textbooks, and real-time text and video interaction. The design of the classroom environment and the abilities for the instructors and students to interact were entirely foreign to me. The fire service instruction methodology I knew was nothing like this! I was lost in the maze of new technology that drove information dissemination and retrieval.
I realized as I progressed through my coursework how much time and work we required of our educators who work in academia. It takes between four and six years of education post high school to become qualified to teach our children. Compare those hours with the mere 40 it takes to certify a high school graduate to teach within the fire service. Am I implying that all fire instructors go to college? No. Am I suggesting that we look at revamping our instructor continuing education? Yes. I believe that Fire Instructor I should be the starting point to the process of becoming an instructor, not the only requirement.
Most states require some form of continuing education, and that is an important start. We cannot move the fire service forward without instructors capable of effectively teaching our newest members. I believe we also need to take a page from the higher education system and move toward instructor continuing education in a way that mirrors how we teach our high school and college professors. We can develop curriculum to better prepare our instructors to meet the needs of the new student.
There still needs to be discipline and rigor to the academy process but also more current strategy as well. Does this mean a kinder, gentler fire service? An end to the drill-instructor style of most academies? I think a better way to look at it is in the improvement of long-term retention of information, the development of more confident and informed recruits, and ultimately a more prepared and capable all-hazards response force.
If you want to teach the next generation of firefighters, you need to be prepared. An IFSAC or Pro Board certificate is not the end, just the beginning. Find programs outside of the fire service to challenge the status quo of the fire instructor we know. The best way to improve ourselves is to step out of our comfort zone and into a learning environment that pushes us to reinterpret what it means to be an instructor. We need to be better not just for ourselves but for those who depend on us to teach them how to be the best the fire service has to offer.
Chris Garniewicz is a captain with the Bluffton Twp. (SC) Fire District currently assigned to Rescue 335. He has a master’s degree in education from Northeastern University (MA) and is an IFSAC certified Fire Instructor 2. He is an instructor with the SC Fire Academy and a member of the Recruit Cadre with the Bluffton Twp. Fire District and lectures throughout the East Coast on truck operations and instructor education. He began his career in the Metro Boston area, serving as a volunteer firefighter and EMT.