Earlier this year while channel surfing I stumbled across the commencement speech for this year’s graduating class from Smith College. It was given by Margaret Edson, a Smith graduate and an award-winning playwright who teaches kindergarten in Atlanta. The focus of her talk was the joys and values of classroom teaching. Her eloquent speech made me think about how we educate our firefighters.
Are we training our personnel or are we teaching them? Or is what we are doing a mix of both? And, if it is both, is that the right thing for us to be giving our firefighters?
I love the well-tuned bark of a vent saw and tend to buy the most powerful reciprocating saw I can find. Most firefighters have something that is part of their psyche that draws them to the tools of our trade. One thing that often gets forgotten when we buy tools is the human element.
No tool or set of tools or piece of apparatus exists in vacuum. True performance comes from how the tools and apparatus interface with their human operators. This includes how well educated that operator is in the mission and capabilities of the piece of equipment they are working on as well as the principles and theories behind it.
Teaching Versus Training
In her commencement speech, Margaret Edson said, “Showing somebody how to do something exactly the way you’ve always done it is not teaching, it’s training.” Achieving standardized repeatable results is not a bad thing in our business. However, we can never get the most out of our fire rescue personnel if our goal is to only achieve “repeatable results.”
The fire rescue business is at once a very simple, yet extremely complex enterprise. On the fire side, it really does pretty much boil down to putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, and on the rescue side, it boils down to making a big enough space to remedy somebody’s entrapment. If you are active in our business at all, you know how complex all that simple stuff can get in just a heart-beat. This is why mere training is not enough.
Principles Of Operation
How many times have you heard the phrase, “think outside the box?” Thinking outside the box takes more than training. It takes being taught the principles and theories of operation and function. Most of what we do, most of the time is pretty straightforward, simple tool exercises for the day-to-day rescue. But every now and then a rescue presents a real challenge. What do we do then? This is where your teaching and training kicks in.
You have to recognize what your challenges are. What opportunities does the rescue scenario give you and what are the potentials of your tool? Only after recognizing those factors can you begin to think.
Thinking outside the box is where you use non-standard solutions to solve unique challenges. To do this takes more than training. Remember training produces standardized reproducible operations. To think and respond effectively, you need an education that is rich in the hows and whys things work the way they do.
One good example of this comes from a rescue instructor from York County, Pa., named Skip Rupert. He has a true understanding of how hydraulic rescue tools work. He realizes that there is more to spreaders than hydraulic fluid opening and closing the tips. He is acutely aware of the geometry of the rescue tool and how that affects the results.
When Skip teaches a class he tells his students to think of how the jaws work in an arc and how that impacts what you are spreading. He takes that a step further when he is engaged in hands on training, showing and explaining why the “angle of attack” with your rescue tool can and does make a very real difference in where you are relocating vehicle parts during a rescue.
This course of teaching can be very eye-opening to Skip’s students, who learn so much more than simply how to make their machine move. His teaching results in a fundamental education that goes beyond mere tool operation. It is an education that delves into maximizing a tool’s capabilities and recognizing that the tool and operator interface is critical to achieving the best performance.
Structure And Discipline
Training is not a bad thing. Training provides the structure and discipline that is needed to make the best use of what you were taught. For success on the street you really need both teaching and training.
Remember this when you buy new equipment. Find out what kind of education and training equipment manufacturers are going to include with the delivery. If they do not offer it, find out where you can get it? And ask why they are not including it?
The interface between firefighter/rescuer and machine is truly a matter of life and death. Our lives and our customers’ lives depend on us knowing our equipment and getting top performance out of it. The only way to effectively do this is to be taught the principles of our tools’ operations and train in evolutions to make the tools deliver all they can.
Editor’s Note: Carl D. Avery is 37-year member of the Fire Service, originally serving in the Cleveland (N.Y.) Volunteer Fire Department and now the program coordinator at the York County Fire School in Pennsylvania. He is certified as a Fire Instructor II, is a member of the Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee United States of America and is a National Extrication Judge.