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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