What Is Your Training About?

Learning happens and teams perform better when everyone knows and understands the theme of the training drill

One day, back when I was a district chief, I was talking to a crew of firefighters after they had returned to the station from department-wide training. They had participated in a drill that measured their time for performing as a rapid intervention crew (RIC). Obviously, one of the most important tactical skills performed on the fire ground and one that requires consistent training. But was this training (learning) or was it a test?


I asked them a simple question: “What was the training about?” Yes, I knew they were expected to complete a task (move through an obstacle course, find and remove the dummy) while competing against a stopwatch (and the other crews there), but I wanted to know what they really learned from the training? What was the theme?

Here’s what they answered: “It was like a race, and we didn’t win!” “It wasn’t realistic; we wouldn’t be able to do it by ourselves.” “We made lots of mistakes because we felt rushed.” “It was like a firefighter challenge race.”

Time to task is critical when completing any tactical assignment, especially one that rescues one of our own. And it’s specifically important for successfully achieving a strategic goal, like finding and removing a downed or injured firefighter.

A rapid intervention incident is a rescue event that requires the coordination between command and several tactical teams, all while the original operations continue. It’s not a race or a competition. It’s rare that it can be done with only one crew. The tactical component will not execute effectively without the strategic element of command. Both the command team and the tactical teams must be operating with the same strategy, or theme in mind: to remove a downed or injured firefighter to safety.

Learning happens and teams (command and tactical) perform better when everyone knows and understands the theme of the training drill.

Know what your training is about. Understand the theme.

Ask yourself, “What’s the message here?”

What a Leadership Team Should Be Doing

Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what to do with your time when you’re in an administrative leadership position at the fire department. Yes, there are mission-critical functions to complete but those are often more strategic than tactical. You’re acting with the BIG picture in mind.

Leaders help others grow. Illustration by Paul Combs.

Leaders help others grow. Illustration by Paul Combs.

This can be very challenging for the firefighter at heart who is now in an executive leadership position. No longer do you respond to those routine calls and operate as a tactical commander. You’re now part of a strategic leadership team. And by the way, not all firefighters should just promote up to a leadership position.

I personally made the transition from front line firefighter to company officer then to chief officer, but it’s taken a lot of time and practice to be where I am now. Over the last 30 years I’ve discovered through lots of trial and error why we need leaders,  how to work safely and effectively with people, and in many areas what not to do. I continue to learn more every day.

There are times when I’m fond of my role as a chief officer and there are other days when I’m not. The structured, rule-driven processes such as fiscal procurement and asset inventory are much less interesting to manage and at times are too routine for my taste. After all, I’m a firefighter and my adrenaline flows when I’m tangled up in a dangerous and chaotic challenge.

But the successes are sweeter now that I get to work with more people on several valuable projects. And the challenges are much larger which requires more critical thought and have greater impact. I have more influence and more opportunity to grow more leaders.

So I will continue to grow myself, so I can help others grow. I’ll keep looking for what it takes to be a good leader and an effective member of our leadership team. I’ll spend my time (when I’m not ordering stuff and counting things) helping build a learning organization that gets things done and encouraging others to be better leaders through reading and open discussion.

Despite my 30 years of fire service experience, with 20 of that as an officer, I still have much to learn. But that’s alright, it’s my challenge!

Question: What is your leadership team doing?

See more illustrations by Paul Combs here.

Use Storytelling Instead Of Telling

Fire service leaders need to be great teachers. And great teachers use storytelling to make their points memorable. Consider the stories told by Alan Brunacini about Mrs. Smith in Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service or the drawings by Paul Combs from Drawn By Fire. We read. We see. We hear. We remember.Leadership-All-Bark-No-Bite Reciting the department’s goals, pointing to a mission statement on the wall, and drilling on policies and procedures are not enough. We will ignite more emotion and spark more thinking by telling stories that convey the why, how and what we are trying to do.

Here are five elements that will help you tell better stories:

  1. Good stories will resonate within us. Good stories will connect with our mindset, or why we do what we do. The actions or the characters portrayed in the story will stir something inside of us, helping us to identify the right and the wrong.
  2. Good stories show accomplishments and lessons learned. Good stories will show the steps that lead to success and the errors that bring on catastrophe. We learn from both.
  3. Good stories point to a greater cause. Good stories help answer the question, “Why are we here?” They help identify the real purpose for being here and doing what we do.
  4. Good stories teach, but in a different way. To present the truth, we can easily present a chart, graph, or bullet points. But telling a story will allow people to see your honesty and passion for your cause.
  5. Good stories open the door for critical thinking. We don’t have to explain everything. Leave room for the listener to form their own ideas and ask questions.This allows for more dialogue and engagement.

Question: Do you think storytelling is a better way to make your points memorable?

Honor, Courage, Sacrifice: Yarnell 19

Posted by Paul Combs on July 2, 2014 at Drawn By Fire.

For information on the Yarnell Hill Fire, go here to Pam McDonald’s post at Wildland Fire Leadership.

Day 1

Read Wildland Firefighter Justin Vernon’s personal thoughts on the Yarnell Fire here.

Perception Equals Reality: Train Like You Fight!

Perception Equals Reality—Even in Training Drills

Make sure your training drills are realistic and effective

Photo by Tim Olk

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

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.

Training Approaches
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

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.

Recommended Reading & Viewing



Burton Clark – Fire/EMS Safety & Health Week: Rules vs. DNA

From Ben Franklin to today, all firefighters have the same DNA made up of six genes: fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death (FCWRID). These genes have been passed down for generations from firefighters and the public. Our gene sequence has driven our behavior and rule development throughout our history (Clark, 2011).

Your firefighter DNA genes (fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death) will trump rules every time. Most of the time, one abnormal gene does not negatively affect the outcome, but when two or more mutate, turgidity can results.  Changing your DNA is hard, but you can change your behavior if you know what is driving it.


The Art of Manliness – Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisnehower: How to Make an Important Decision

The complexity of planning and executing Operation Overlord — the largest amphibious assault in world history — was truly staggering.

How had Eisenhower found the nerve to make one of the heaviest, most consequential decisions in history? “I had to,” he later explained, “if I let anybody, any of my commanders, think that maybe things weren’t going to work out, that I was afraid, they’d be afraid to. I didn’t dare. I had to have the confidence. I had to make them believe that everything was going to work.”

Dan Rockwell, The Leadership Freak – Stop Barking up the Wrong Tree

Leaders who work to extend their influence are barking up the wrong tree.

Mike Myatt, N2Growth – The History of Leadership

…. an interactive historical timeline of the world’s greatest leaders dating as far back as 2000 BC.


Seth Godin – Doing the big work (at the little table)

Most of the day is spent in little work. The obligation is to carve out time for the big work.

High Performance Leadership – The Trouble with Critical Feedback

How do you respond to a situation that provides only critical feedback?


Terin Izil & Sunni Brown, TED-Ed – The Power of Simple Words

Long, fancy words designed to show off your intelligence and vocabulary are all very well, but they aren’t always the best words. In this short, playful video Terin Izil explains why simple, punchy language is often the clearest way to convey a message.


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.