Rural/Volunteer vs. Career City Department Training: Where the Differences Begin and End

By Carl J. Haddon

Many of the differences between rural and city departments or between volunteer and career departments are obvious. At the top of every department’s list is the difference in the amount of the almighty dollars, which directly corresponds to our respective budgets. Our budgets determine what we can buy and typically how much we can do financially. OK, that said, hasn’t it become way too easy for some of us to use that budget as an excuse for not doing the right thing regarding training? How much does “doing the right thing” cost when it comes to training? Really, think about it.

Most career departments that I know of are required to do some sort of training and/or drill each shift or tour for approximately 200 hours of training per year. Many volunteer departments offer training to their members once a week, usually on a weeknight, or on a Saturday for approximately 100 hours of training per year. Others have business meetings twice a month, and training twice a month, on an alternating weekly basis for approximately 50 hours of training per year. Others still, offer their volunteers training only one evening a month, for a couple of hours, for approximately 24 hours of training per year. Unless the department is bringing in a paid instructor from the outside or sending firefighters to an outside training session, how much does it cost to offer good in-house training drills? How much is “enough” training?

Late last summer, I was unceremoniously volunteered into unified command with a type 1 incident management team in the middle of the largest United States wildland fire of 2012. One of my jobs was to assess the readiness of one of the local volunteer fire departments for use as a structure suppression resource. One small rural volunteer department consisted primarily of 50-year-old members who trained for an hour or two, once a month during most months. The majority of these firefighters, most of them retirees from other unrelated professions, each had fewer than 10 years in the fire service, no Firefighter I or Firefighter II certifications, and had never responded to an actual structure fire, let alone seen any fire or event like the magnitude this wildfire presented.

Fire behavior predictions for a 72 hour period called for a “wind-driven fire storm” that presented a wall of flames greater than five miles long to descend on more than 200 residences down to and along the highway corridor. With their dedication and willingness to serve notwithstanding, I was faced with the reality that these brave souls had less than 24 hours per year of total training, of which, thankfully, eight hours was spent on wildland survival refresher training. However, they had no structure fire experience or practical hands on training to speak of, and their fire chief was out of the area on an unrelated work assignment. With all of the aforementioned factors taken into consideration, in good conscience, how far could I really put these particular firefighters into harm’s way? In speaking with a number of them, they expressed that they felt like they were “all trained up” and that “we’re not rookies, we’ve been with the department for a number of years.” Their hearts were all in the right place, they simply didn’t know what they didn’t know.

How many fire departments across the country are in similar circumstances? Might it be time for you, your chief, or your fire commissioners to reevaluate your department’s training and readiness? Regardless of whether you run two calls per month or 200 calls per month, are your members adequately trained and ready for whatever the next job might require?

Training’s Impact on Equipment Acquisition
On a related note, many of us depend on grants to purchase needed equipment, goods, and services. Grant dollars are becoming harder to find, and the requirements for many grants have become more stringent than in the past. One of the changes to a number of federal grant requirements is that a percentage of the department’s firefighters must have Firefighter I certifications, with, in a number of cases, an additional percentage of those members having, or working toward Firefighter II. These changes, although a good idea, have effectively made a significant number of rural departments ineligible for these much needed grants. But, why? Shouldn’t all fire departments want to strive for a minimum training standard of Firefighter I for their members, and for those who they serve?

Regardless of the terrain or the type of department that you belong to, does the fire take it easier on you because you have 200 or 24 hours of training in a year? Does the fire care if you are a volunteer or a paid career firefighter? It grates on me when I hear other officers say, “If we require them to attend more training, we will lose them.” My unpopular answer is that “I’d rather lose them as members of the department than lose them to a fire or other response because they’re not trained.” Wives and family members tend to agree with me.

No Excuse to Not Train
The fire service isn’t for everyone. For those of us who have spent the majority of our adult lives as firefighters, we know, or should know, that training is the key to surviving each shift and ultimately surviving a career in the fire service, whether volunteer or career. A big part of our “brotherhood” is achieved and nurtured through training together, running calls, and fighting fire together. Becoming comfortable with the skills and abilities of the person in front of or behind you as you crawl the hall or take the roof is only achieved through lots of hours training.

You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your crew, and most importantly, you owe it to your family to train to be the best that you can be, regardless of whether you serve a rural, volunteer, or career department. I’ve often appreciated the saying, “Let the ghost of no man say that his training let him down.” For my older firefighter brothers and sisters, remember too that “the job of an old firefighter is to help ensure that young firefighters become old firefighters.” Train, train, train.

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 serves 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.

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