Perception Equals Reality – Even in Training Drills [Article]

My recent article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Make sure your training drills are realistic and effective

Photo by Tim Olk

By Billy Schmidt
Published Thursday, July 5, 2012

The stairwell was filled with smoke and we had trouble seeing. We stretched the hoseline from the floor below and charged it, but the situation became one big mess. We hadn’t deployed a high-rise pack in a while. At the last high-rise training drill, we were assigned to water supply and didn’t even enter the building. We should have trained more on this!

There are two things all fire departments must do: 1) respond to and mitigate emergencies, and 2) prepare to respond to and mitigate emergencies—and training is the foundation for both. That’s why fire departments must make the right investment in time, effort and—yes—funding, so that training can occur regularly and effectively.

Your training mission should be simple and unchanging: Get your firefighters and officers ready to respond to and handle anything, at any time. But that’s a daunting task, and too often trainers believe that just any training drill will do. Or maybe training takes the first hit in the budget cuts. Despite these challenges, you must utilize realistic and effective training to build a healthy, educated fire department that’s ready to handle anything safely and effectively.

Trainers must be creative thinkers and willing to make an extra effort to prepare and deliver training simulations that offer realistic incident operations and learning environments that lead from thought to action. Realistic simulations build the skill and will of individual firefighters while improving team performance. Perception equals reality, even in training drills.

This concept is the key ingredient to safe and effective emergency operations, and it doesn’t have to drain your budget. For better readiness, reshape your training delivery by starting simple and building complexity along the way; focus on individual confidence and team cohesion that ensures the ability to think and act clearly; and remain open-minded and make adjustments to enact safe and reliable performance.

Plan Realistic Training Drills 
Highly dynamic training requires sound and organized thinking—and a good plan. Planning is critical for developing realistic incident training. A training need exists where there is a gap between what’s required of a firefighter or officer to perform their work competently and what they can actually do. Here are three key components for designing and delivering realistic training simulations.

1. Where they are: Determine the current skill level of your firefighters.
What’s the skill level of your firefighters and officers today? To determine their current skill level, first observe their performance during training and actual incidents. Then ask them what skills they aren’t comfortable with and need to improve on. Following are example questions you may ask:

  • How well prepared are you to handle an apartment fire on the sixth floor of a high-rise building? A residential liquid propane (LP)gas leak with a fire?
  • How many times in the last year have you completed a ventilation task at an actual structure fire?
  • How many times in the last year have you practiced forcing entry through a real door?

Asking these types of questions will help you determine the necessary training and establish the desired outcomes you’re looking for. A thorough needs assessment, while time consuming, will provide more accurate information to build on.

2. Where you want them to be: Identify the skill level you want your firefighters to attain.
Not all firefighters are alike. They will perform at different levels and you must determine at what skill level you want them to perform. This should be a combined effort between the training staff and a cross section of subject matter experts (SME), usually officers from the field. This group can better identify the skill levels needed and prioritize what training needs the most attention, how often it should be completed and by whom.

3. Develop a SMART plan to meet your training drill goals.
Use the acronym SMART to develop your plan (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely). Producing a believable and achievable SMART training plan is the best way to get “buy-in” from your firefighters and ensure consistent training. All realistic training should begin with basic instruction and practice that builds to a collective simulated exercise. For every simulation exercise, your training objectives should be:

  • Specific: What do you want to accomplish? For example, if you are delivering a high-rise drill, your specific goals might be to have crews practice deploying hoselines in stairwells, ventilating stairwells, searching smoke-filled apartments and moving victims down stairwells. Make sure crews know these objectives ahead of time so they can practice the tasks before the drill.
  • Measurable: What is the maximum time allowed to complete fire knockdown, search and rescue, or ventilation? How do benchmarks fit into the incident command picture? The learning outcomes must be measurable.
  • Achievable: What can be achieved? Do not expect crews to perform beyond their capabilities. One crew of firefighters cannot attack the fire, search the building and remove multiple victims. Overloading them will only decrease motivation and teach bad habits.
  • Realistic: Set realistic objectives so that the crews go into the drill believing they can do it. While experiencing failure is an important learning lesson, no one wants to continually train to fail. Remember, the goal is to build confidence, not tear it down.
  • Timely: Time at a chaotic and stressful event is really about tempo. And tempo is the relative speed in time it takes to identify opportunities, make decisions and act faster than the situation. Tempo is central for firefighters to maneuver during an incident, and the aim is for them to learn to seize the initiative—allowing them to better control the chaos of the event. Learning realistic time elements helps firefighters adjust their tempo as a team during real incidents.

Training Approaches
To create training sessions that most effectively prepare firefighters for the real thing, trainers need to focus on several strategies.

Balance Complexity: All training should be seasoned with the right amount of physical and mental complexity. Avoid introducing multiple layers of complexity that do nothing more than overwhelm or test the crew’s limits. Ensure that crews are thoroughly trained on the fundamental skills and tactics before factoring in complexity. Start with basic scenarios and build complexity as the crews develop their skills and strengthen their confidence.

Train to Think Outside the Box:Complex and dangerous situations demand creative thinking so firefighters must learn to think creatively, or outside the box. Remember: There are always multiple ways of doing things. Creative thinking is inclusive thinking; it considers the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches, providing different ways to look at a problem. Exclusive thinking, which excludes other facts and perceptions, smothers imagination and intuition. Firefighters who think inclusively have a willingness to explore all approaches, keeping an open mind to more effective solutions in stressful and ambiguous situations.

Effectiveness over Efficiency:Effectiveness should be the key component when developing training drills. When setting organizational goals related to the training drill, always focus on the outcomes. Ask, “What is it we expect the firefighters to do? What is it we expect the officers to do? How do we expect the teams to perform?” Once those questions are answered, design training programs that focus on effectiveness over efficiency.

Include Boyd’s OODA Loop in training drills as an effective way to process information and make fast decisions. Letting firefighters practice the process of observing what’s happening, becoming oriented to the situation, then making decisions and acting on them to accomplish the objectives will produce effective outcomes, not just efficient drills. The more firefighters realistically train, the faster they’ll be able to intuitively put into action the learned responses built from practicing observation-orientation-decision and action.

Talk about What Was Learned:The first questions firefighters should ask themselves, and officers should ask their team, are “What was done right? What can be done better? What did we learn?” Time and effort should be given to ensure that the correct learning outcomes were delivered. What firefighters and officers take away from training will guide their decisions and actions at real events. Every training drill should end with a debriefing and critique that includes everyone involved. Too often, training drills conclude without providing time for facilitators and firefighters to discuss their training performance. For every training drill critique, do the following:

  • Do everything possible to get everyone involved and talking. No one person should do all of the talking. Real dialogue from everyone will provide a mountain of information for learning and improvement.
  • Officers should be given ample opportunity to critique their team’s actions, which will provide a clear indication of the officer’s capability to learn and further train their team. Facilitators, and the officer’s immediate supervisor, can observe what was learned and how future training can be supported just by listening to the officer.
  • Position everyone at a vantage point where they can see the area where the training action took place. Draw sketches on a marker board or walk back through the scenario to discuss the good points and areas for improvement.
  • When covering points for improvement, don’t say, “You should have done this,” or, “You should have done that.” It’s much better to ask probing questions that can bring out detailed answers. For example, ask, “When you entered the smoke-filled stairwell, what action was taken?” Follow that question with, “What did you think of the action?” Using a series of questions will draw everyone into the discussion. More importantly, everyone has ideas and this can elicit contributions to the discussion—which is essential to the learning process.

A Final Word
Firefighters and officers are faced with unique and dangerous challenges everyday; our decisions and actions can save lives and protect property. The way we train is crucial to addressing these challenges. Training cannot become a “numbers game” focusing just on preparedness rather than readiness. Training must be shaped to meet the reality of today’s incidents and the people who will work together to face them. Providing realistic training drills will condition everyone to be ready for any situation—to be more decisive, deliberate and correct in their actions.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Do you balance complexity in your training? Do you train to think outside the box?

My Big Question: Do We Focus Too Much on the Nuts and Bolts?

My big question is, “Do we focus too much on the nuts and bolts of tactics and not develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through reading, writing, speaking and other hallmarks of educational courses?”

Organizations know they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines (training, education, and experience). But most focus more on compliance and technology in place of a broader academic background that includes reading, writing, and speaking.

I played a small part in a recent class for newly promoted officers at our fire department where “critical thinking and problem-solving skills through reading books, in-class presentations and other hallmarks of academic courses” made a noticeable difference in officer development in our organization (kudos to Captain Mike Ellis). I witnessed thought-provoking questions and real debate that led to better learning.

In his book, Going Pro: The Deliberate Practice of Professionalism
Tony Kern makes this point: “Get off the recurrent training cycle by embracing “growth-based” development of knowledge skills and abilities that exceed job expectations.”

Our ambiguous and complex world demands a new mindset – one that can keep up and think on its feet!

Read, learn, lead. It will make a difference!

What is your organization doing to help members develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills? How can you help make this happen?

Recommended Reading: Getting Firefighters Attention During Training

Learning has changed dramatically over the years.

The times they are a changing, and people and how they learn change with it. We should follow Dylan’s advice when he sings, “you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” Every organization today, especially those operating in high-risk environments, must pay more attention to how their members learn, designing and delivering training and education that works for everyone. That’s how “learning organizations” are created.

Janet Wilmoth writes in her article in Fire Chief Magazine this month:

Now, a multimedia tsunami is available to viewers in their homes and offices, on their computers and smartphones, and in their vehicles with live and on-demand programs. And we expect the same entertainment and engagement in any program or class, online or at a conference.

Training in the fire and emergency response services has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, both because of increased technological capabilities and the increased demands on the fire service.

Denis Onieal, Superintendent at the National Fire Academy is quoted in the article:

Earlier this year, National Fire Academy Superintendent Denis Onieal said that fire-service instructors today understand that they are working with adult learners and can’t use the teaching methods traditionally used with children. “Great fire service instructors know that adults need to be engaged in their own learning — they’re poor passive learners,” he said.

Wilmoth concludes the article with:

A good instructor knows his students, his topics, and the most effective way to deliver his message or lesson before heads bow and focus shifts to texting or e-mails.

Here’s my response to the article:

HOW do firefighters learn? It depends on each and everyone one of them, individually. What we teach is important, but HOW we teach is vital, and it’s all audience driven. We don’t want to teach just an understanding of firefighting but the ability to do it. Along with building the skill of the body, the mind must be trained to observe, orient, decide and act. Building knowledge, skill and ability requires two things: 1) the student knows their own learning needs (where they are and where they need to go); and 2) the teacher understands the student’s learning needs and is able to adapt to them. In a group setting, this means hitting all the students’ senses for learning (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and I would also include a sense of time and intuition). So, in reality, ALL OF THE ABOVE (Powerpoint, slides, handouts, hands-on, videos, and writing (something we don’t do enough of)) should be used. It just depends on the audience.

If our real goal is to train (condition) everyone to be ready for any situation, and to be more decisive, deliberate and correct in their actions, then we should use every training method available to reach everyone in their own way.

Read the entire article here.

A Related Article:

Dr. Denis Onieal on Higher Education in the Fire Service.

[The Art of the FireGround] Firefighters, Can You Vent Enough?

Photo by Tim Olk

Chief Ed Hartin reviews more tactical implications regarding ventilation and fire behavior, answering the question, can you vent enough?

The influence of ventilation during tactical operations is vital, but not addressed enough. Whether the box (structure) is closed, partially opened, or completely opened is just as important as putting water on the fire. It’s all connected. Read all of Chief Hartin’s posts on ventilation for a thorough study not just on what works, but why.

Influence of Ventilation in Residential Structures: Tactical Implications Part 8

The eighth and tenth tactical implications identified in the Underwriters Laboratories study of the Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction (Kerber, 2011) are the answer to the question, can you vent enough and the influence of pre-existing openings or openings caused by fire effects on the speed of progression to flashover. Read more here.

What are your department’s procedures for ventilation? How does your department evaluate its ventilation capabilities?


HEAT Conference 2012 [Event]

I will be leading a roundtable discussion at the South Florida HEAT Conference 2012 on Rapid Intervention Realities.

Date:  Thursday, February 9, 2012

Time:  1:15 to 3:00 PM

EventSouth Florida HEAT Conference 2012

TopicRapid Intervention Reality Roundtable Discussion

SponsorTraining Officers of the Palm Beaches

Location:  Herman W. Brice Complex at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, 405 Pike Road,   West Palm Beach, Florida

Registration:  Click here to register

More info:  Click here for more information

Leadership Arithmetic

[from Col. Malone’s book, Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach]

Leaders should be doing one of two things:

  1. Leading soldiers (firefighters) and small units (companies) during battle
  2. Preparing soldiers (firefighters) and small units (companies) before battle

Here’s the formula:

  • Individual Skill x Will to Learn = INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE
  • Thinking Individuals x Individual Skill x Will x Drill = LIVES SAVED AND PROPERTY PROTECTED

Rapid Intervention Roundtable at HEAT Conference 2012

Photo by Tim Olk

2012 South Florida HEAT Conference

Hosted by the Fire Training Officers of the Palm Beaches

Rapid Intervention Realities Roundtable

The sound of “Mayday, Mayday” heard over the radio will bring a sense of uneasiness and urgency to everyone on the fire ground. One of our own is in trouble. Is your fire department ready to manage an incident where firefighters transmit a Mayday?

Where does your fire department stand with rapid intervention team (RIT) operations? Many changes have taken place since RIT was first introduced, but how has your fire department RIT operation changed? Do you have RIT policies and procedures that are accepted and used? Do you provide realistic training for firefighter assist and survival? Do you have adequate staffing and resources, and relationships with other response agencies that will assist you with your RIT operations? Is your command staff ready to manage the risk and make the decisions to successfully control a Mayday incident?

District Chief Billy Schmidt (PBCFR) will host a roundtable chat on rapid intervention realities across Palm Beach County. Members of the Rapid Intervention Group will discuss RIT policies and procedures, practices, staffing and resources, and command and control. The Group will share its mission and intent to help fire departments in Palm Beach County raise the awareness of prevention, heighten the state of readiness, and strengthen the level of rapid intervention response.

Come and listen as they discuss their research into the following:

  • The impact of NFPA 1407
  • How to prevent unsafe conditions that may cause firefighters to become lost, trapped or injured on the fire ground
  • How to build knowledgeable, well-trained Rapid Intervention Teams
  • How to get Command and RIT working on the same page
  • How to get a fire department ready to respond to the unthinkable: A Mayday

The Rapid Intervention Group includes members from most Palm Beach County Fire Departments and is working to develop a fully comprehensive rapid intervention program through a collaborative partnership and a solution-centered approach that focuses on “fire-ground firefighter safety” as the highest priority.

Ventilation: The Missing Link

Photo by Tim Olk

Controlling fire has always been a topic of concern for the fire service, whether protecting exposures, containing a fire to a specific area, or creating a workable environment where people can be rescued.  Ventilation is key to both the development and control of fire, and every action that firefighters take on the fire ground influences the fire: how it grows and where it goes. Yet there remains considerable misunderstanding and misapplication of ventilation strategies and tactics. Many times, ventilation isn’t even addressed. Why is this happening in a modern fire service that has more technology and better educated firefighters?

It is crucial that fire departments recognize the importance of coordinated (timely) tactical ventilation. Firefighters must work more at understanding what ventilation is, how it impacts fire development and potential extreme fire behavior, and how ventilation strategies support incident objectives (remove civilians from danger and contain/control the incident). They have know the what, where, when and how of ventilation.

There are many different views on ventilation in the fire service. Not just international differences, but an assortment of approaches within a single fire department. A lack of knowledge and experience on the subject only encourages more disagreement and less proper application. That needs to change.

FireGroundWorks will explore the topic of ventilation by researching best practices from a variety of fields and locations from around the world. The goal is to offer a selection of thoughts and approaches to consider when addressing the selection and implementation of ventilation strategies and tactics.

* Side Note: FGW is currently researching and developing a program focusing on tactical and strategic decision-making during the fast-paced tempo of dangerous and stressful events. The program identifies the need for skill and experience, combined with a sense of timing (tempo) to solve complicated problems in a chaotic environment. Insights on timing and technique will be presented to offer practical, actionable advice for accomplishing tactical ventilation on the fire ground. The program is called: TEMPO: TIMING, TACTICS AND STRATEGY ON THE FIRE GROUND and it will be a part of my future FF-360 decision making column at

Tactical Ventilation Sources:

My first GO-TO place for all-things fire is Ed Hartin’s Compartment Fire Behavior Training (CFBT). Hartin is an international fire behavior consultant and trainer, and one of the authors of 3D Firefighting: Training, Techniques, and Tactics. CFBT began a series of blogs called the Influence of Ventilation in Residential Structures. Below are the links to Tactical Implications 1-7.

Influence of Ventilation in Residential Structures:

  1. Tactical Implications Part 1 begins by explaining the impact of fire behavior.
  2. Tactical Implications Part 2 focuses on timing and techniques for controlled entry and hose operations.
  3. Tactical Implications Part 3 addresses visual indicators (reading smoke) of fire development.
  4. Tactical Implications Part 4 conveys the importance of coordinating fire attack with (tactical) ventilation.
  5. Tactical Implications Part 5 explores the impact of the changing dynamics of residential fires as a result of changes in construction materials, building contents and building size over the last 50 years.
  6. Tactical Implications Part 6 identifies the potential hazards and risks related to the tactic of Vent Enter Search (VES).
  7. Tactical Implications Part 7 studies the influence of changes of ventilation on flow path (where is it going and why?).

Tactical ventilation is a valuable firefighting tool. When timed correctly and properly placed, ventilation can be the difference between operational failure and success. The fire service must get better at tactical ventilation. What do you think?

Suggested Reading:

Streetlights and Shadows: 10 claims about how we think.

How do people think in shadowy conditions where ambiguity rises and situations change rapidly? Klein believes that many of us have set beliefs on how to perform is these situations. Beliefs that may not be accurate. He has identified 10 claims that may mislead us into believing that we are thinking more effectively.

Following are the 10 claims that Klein uses to build his book. What are your opinions to each claim? You may be surprised with his answers.

1. Teaching people procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully.
2. Decision biases distort our thinking.
2a. Successful decision makers rely on logic and statistics instead of intuition.
3. To make a decision, generate several options and compare them to pick the best one.
4. we can reduce uncertainty by gathering more information.
5. It’s bad to jump to conclusions – wait to see all the evidence.
6. To get people to learn, give them feedback on the consequences of their actions.
7. To make sense of a situation, we draw inferences from the data.
8. The starting point for any project is to get a clear description of the goal.
9. Our plans will succeed more often if we ID the biggest risks and find ways to eliminate them.
10. Leaders can create common ground by assigning roles and setting ground rules in advance.

What I'm Reading Right Now – Streetlights and Shadows

Photo by Tim Olk

I am researching decision making to prepare for my next Firefighter-360 columns. I have read other books and several articles by Gary Klein about how people make decisions and cognitive task analysis. I find it interesting, and maybe the most important area for improvement in the fire service. We need to get better at “bringing thinking to action.”

Do we make decisions with our gut or should we analyze every option? It depends! Klein offers realistic ideas about real-life situations.

The book begins with this story:

A policeman saw a drunk searching for something under a streetlight. “What have you lost, my friend?” the policeman asked. “My keys,” said the drunk. The policeman then helped the drunk look  and finally asked him: “Where exactly did you drop them?” “Over there, ” responded the drunk, pointing toward a dark alley. The policeman then asked: “Why are you looking here?” The drunk immediately replied, “Because the light is so much brighter here.”