Perception Equals Reality—Even in Training Drills
Make sure your training drills are realistic and effective
Photo by Tim Olk
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.
Not all firefighters are alike. Photo Billy Schmidt
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.
To create training sessions that most effectively prepare firefighters for the real thing, trainers need to focus on several strategies.
Train on the basics before building complexity. Photo Billy Schmidt
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!
This article was published first at FirefighterNation.com on July 5, 2012.