Features, Haddon

Rurally Speaking: the Forest Through the Trees; Take a Deeper Look

By Carl J. Haddon

I am blessed to work with all kinds of rural volunteer fire departments from all over the country. I’ve learned that no two rural fire departments are the same. However, more of them than I want to admit have some things in common that keep me awake at night.

Last week I was contacted by two individuals on different days from different fire departments. What I heard from each of them is the inspiration for this article. I will not name the individuals or their departments, but what I share with you “shared the skit” out of me. My hope is that it frightens you too. If the following is standard operating procedure or similar to how you do things, please know that I mean no disrespect to anyone. I only want to ensure that “everyone goes home.”

My first encounter was from a relatively new volunteer fire chief. We had some business to discuss, however before we talked shop, he was quite proud to tell me of a “milestone” that a number of his members had achieved after having had only their standard two hours of training on one evening each month. He told me that roughly a dozen of his people had just become “Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 certified” and that it was the first time in the history of the department that such a level of certification had been reached by members of the department. I sincerely congratulated him on their accomplishment. He went on to tell me that “it was a tough two days, but they all made it through.” Insert the sound of screeching tires and gears grinding here. I tried to hide my astonishment at what I just heard and remain professional, but imagine my surprise when I heard that he thought that his personnel had just been NFPA 1001 and 1002 (Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2) certified in a 16-hour weekend. In spite of this bombshell that left me speechless (a rarity), the chief and I had a nice balance of our conversation and made some plans for future training opportunities. I had to learn more about this training event that gave the chief the impression that his people were now “certified” firefighters.

What I learned is that these brave souls attended an event that offered four-hour blocks of training. The program was titled “Firefighter 1—Essentials of Firefighting” and included four hours of instruction in the areas of: forcible entry, ground ladders, basics of ventilation, and SCBA donning and doffing with SCBA confidence maze. Allow me to say that I have absolutely no doubt that these basic firefighting modules were well taught by seasoned professionals, and that they were most likely outstanding classes. With that said, (mask up, we’re going down the hall) as great and necessary for new firefighters to learn as these modules probably were, they do NOT constitute an entire curriculum for Firefighter 1 certification, let alone a Firefighter 2 cert. My obvious concern is that this new fire chief and his dedicated cadre of volunteers thinks that they are now ready to perform interior fire attack and VES/VEIS operations after 16 hours of training, which is very much what he told me. This same chief is working very diligently to get new and donated used equipment such as rotary saws and chain-type ventilation saws so that they can put their newly acquired skills to work.

I’ve made mention more than a few times that only two or three hours of training per month doesn’t make skilled firefighters. I’ve caught a lot of flack for those comments, but ask yourself the question: Would you want to be defended by an attorney who had only 24 hours of training each year? Would you consider him or her an attorney? Would you let someone with that amount of training who calls themselves a doctor, do surgery on your kid? Would you even let a guy who only has 24 hours of training as an electrician wire your house?

The second gentleman from another department came to see me about a training issue he had as a result of a similar training event. He explained to me that he is brand new to the department with only about three months on. He said he made it to all three of the monthly training sessions offered by his department. The last department training took place about a week before he went off to this Mini-academy, and it was the first and only time that he had ever worn an SCBA. He said that it was also one of the first times that he had been in his turnout gear. A week later he is sent with a small contingent from his department to this training event. He said that the chief had signed him up for an eight-hour flashover and survival class. This older gentleman reiterated again that he was brand new to the area and the department and joined because the call went out for volunteers. He said he had no desire to become a firefighter at more than 60 years old but wanted to help out the community. He said that he has no firefighting experience whatsoever, and was more than apprehensive about being placed in a live fire flashover and survival class with no other training under his belt.

He said that he enjoyed the class and learned a lot. However, there was so much to absorb (and try not to look like an idiot in front of his peers) that he couldn’t tell me much about the purpose or scope of the class. The biggest thing that he learned came during the live fire time inside the class A flashover trainer. He said that he had such an overload of information that once inside the flashover can, all he could think of was not smoking through his air cylinder and making sure he didn’t burn up inside. I will never forget the next thing he said: “Carl, I was so overwhelmed with all of it that I couldn’t see anything past the glass of my SCBA mask.” It was not the fault of the course instructor. He (the firefighter) just didn’t know how much he didn’t know before he took this class.

I’ve been a fire service instructor for a number of decades. When teaching programs for volunteer fire departments, and especially rural volunteer fire departments, I rarely, if ever, write lesson plans anymore. Reason being, rule number one is “know your audience.” Doing canned classes with rigid lesson plans for departments such as those mentioned in this article is pointless and a waste of student and instructor time. I believe in training to the strengths of these departments,while recognizing, mitigating, and lessening or compensating for their weaknesses. I can’t teach a room full of 60-year-old volunteers in the same way I’d teach a group of young, fit, career fire academy cadets. Not everyone has the best and newest equipment and apparatus, but whatever they have is what they have. It’s my job as an instructor and an officer to learn what they’re working with, who they have to work with, and adjust my game, tactics, and training strategy accordingly.

With all due respect to the officer who made the decision to send this 60-something, never-been-in-gear-or-an-SCBA-before, brand new volunteer into a live fire training class runs a real risk of losing this soul as a member. It also runs the very real risk of getting him and the class instructor hurt or worse.

As officers and instructors, we need to remember the following:

  1. 16 hours of training certainly helps but does not make you a firefighter.
  2. “A cat don’t know what a cat don’t know.”
  3. 3. Your brand new volunteers need an appropriate and adequate amount of training PRIOR to sending them to a live fire survival/flashover class.
  4. 4. If your personnel attend a live fire training that overwhelms them to the point that they “can’t see past the glass of their SCBA mask,” this brave soul probably wasn’t trained/prepared well enough for that type of training. Remember too that these volunteers and their loved ones depend upon us to make sure they are well trained, well equipped, and have all of the necessary tools in their toolboxes to do the best job that they can do. Most importantly, they depend upon us as officers and instructors to help ensure that they go home from each and every call. EGH—Everyone Goes Home!

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.