Why we Train

I was asked once to write an article on how “to get training”. Now what they meant was how could a member of my organization go about finding easy and quick access to training programs that would provide organizational development; essentially, how to paper your nest. This was asked with good intentions but I immediately drifted from the request to the question “why do we train?” Certainly it is necessary in our business to receive certificates, and sometimes diplomas, to expose ourselves to new and expanding ideas. This is, or should be, education. Training is not education, its goal is not so much to introduce new fields, ideas and concepts but to build skills and muscle memory to improve our performance in any given field. I once had someone define the difference between the two as follows: “if you had a daughter in school would you want her to receive sexual education in health class or sexual training?” I was able to quickly separate the two.

“A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

So back to the question “why do we train?” A long time ago I was given a book that to this day most clearly defines why we need to train. Even though it was written for young Army officers and NCO’s, it is wholly applicable to us in the fire service. The book is Small Unit Leadership by Col. D. M. Malone. What he set out is a road map to build successful platoons, which are the back bone of the Army. It is directly comparable to our small unit, the Company. You have probably anticipated by now that his recipe for success is training.

Col. Malone tells us that successful leaders are all about tasks, conditions and standards. Accomplishing tasks, the essence of leadership, under often difficult or severe conditions to a given standard, largely set by the leader. We accomplish those tasks by creating confident members who have the skill, will and teamwork to do the job. Here in lies the heart of training; skill and will are both created and improved by drilling.

Good Company officers (and the informal leaders) want to develop companies that can execute fire ground tasks to their high standard; quickly, effectively, and efficiently by my description. Skill, will, and teamwork, when combined, give people confidence. Confidence shows on the fire ground as individuals who jump into their tasks, know their responsibilities, and carry them out without hesitation because they are certain in their abilities. They have performed them so often and to such a level of mastery that they are almost unconscious (muscle memory). They get there by drill (training); Col. Malone’s essential connection is this: frequent, repetitive training on all facets of our job gives us skills which in turn improves our will to perform them. No one wants to be embarrassed in front of their peers, fail in public, or let their team down. When they are sure in their skills, their will to perform is increased and when they have performed them with their team with great regularity, teamwork is born.

“Amateurs practice till they get it right; professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong.”

The hard part for many is the commitment to a high frequency of training. If you truly want high skill and will, then you must practice each of the tasks you are expected to perform with great regularity. The lower the frequency something might occur on the fire ground, the greater attention it must receive in drill to ensure success, for instance a rapid intervention team air transfer. At the same time, the more frequent tasks must receive so much attention that they are literally muscle memory. By committing these to muscle memory the brain is available for other tasks, like continuing size up or memorizing routes of travel, thereby making us quick, effective and efficient. Examples of these frequently used skills include basic forcible entry skills and hose stretching. Interestingly, the more basic skills are the tasks that firefighters most often resist training on. “I know all that” or “that’s too basic” are often heard (or grumbled) when we head out to throw ladders, stretch hose, and force doors, but these are skills that are most often fumbled on the fire ground. Why? You guessed it, not enough realistic drill to create the skill necessary for the demanding environment (conditions) we have to execute them in.

“We do not rise to the level of our expectations but fall to the level of our training” –Archulus

Let’s look at one specific example of how to use drill (training) to build skill, will and a successful team. Most every firefighter received some form of forcible entry training during their early development but does that translate to success on the fire ground? Probably not, but they have some familiarity with the tools and maybe the lingo to get by with. A long time later (days, months, years) they are called to use this training to open a door. Their lack of consistent training now fails them as they stand in front of a street of people, swinging a haligan like a baseball bat at an outward swinging screen door and wondering to themselves how it went this bad. (Reference the Archulus quote) So how does a leader repair and develop this person? They already have some will, at least they stepped up and tried to open the door, but little skill. Reviewing the design of the tools available, door size up and methods of attack is where we start. Utilizing a combination of props and acquired structures, practice the basics; one person inward, two person inward, one and two person outward. Gradually add to the difficulty; additional lock sets, positioning by walls, steps up and down, limited visibility, and stressors like noise, heat, and smoke. Have them work with different team members and in all the tool positions from leader to subordinate. Make them work a consistent mantra that they always follow: try, shock, gap, set and force. As their skill develops expand the range of tools, stress finesse and mechanical advantage, provide increasingly difficult scenarios. Practice and practice and practice again; repetition builds muscle memory. As their skill develops, will and teamwork follow.

You will probably be training more than one person during this time and never forget they are often at different points on the skill and will pathway. Although a lot could be said here, let me for now just say that each person should be matched to their level. Use the experienced veteran to teach basic skill and work on rep’s, use the bored but skilled member to develop new courses and exercises (and demonstrate them). Have the highly motivated (will) but newer member (lower skill) work right in with your target trainee but encourage them to teach what they know. In short, give everyone an appropriate role and continue to mix drill subjects and methods to keep it fresh. One good day of drill does not make anyone an expert; revisit your forcible entry drills until your team can’t get it wrong. Then you can back off a little, work another topic and revisit it to keep everyone on their toes. Soon enough, another person low on skill will join your team and you can jump right back to the beginning, only now you have a stronger cadre of instructors.

This is why we train

The heart of leadership is accomplishing assigned tasks using your personnel under difficult conditions while meeting your high standards. You create this confident team by building skill and will in them through constant training. Since the fire service never met a job it didn’t like, you will never lack for skill sets that need work. Remember to focus on those skills tha

t are at the heart of your mission, have great frequency, or present great risk to your people. If you are doing it right, your personnel will be happy as their new skills give them greater confidence than the companies around you and others will come out to tell you that you train too much. This is a sure sign your on track. So when they complain about your training routine, smile and tell them we don’t train enough… and I have the picture of the screen door to prove it. This is why we train.


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