Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (5 of ?) Training

This is part 5 of a multi-part series. You should have read the preceding parts: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four before moving onto this one. Today's subject is Training in the Volunteer Service.
 Although training is a basic requirement within the Fire Service and would seem to be a given no-brainer, I have seen a HUGE variation in how the basic entry level training requirements are handled around the country.
 This wide variance ranges from a very strict standard within a Department of precisely what Training and Certification is required before a member may respond and participate, all the way down the line to Departments that rely almost entirely on "On the Job Training". In most states where each Department has the authority to set their own Training Standards, this is entirely legal. The hitch will come in when there is an accident and a legal review is undertaken to see what training the members who were involved had, who did the training, and was it up to National Standards? See, here is the big rub. Departments can set their own standards, but when they are judged in Court, it will be against the NFPA standards. One would think it would be smart to just use NFPA as your Department Standards, but that is seldom the case for all Departments.
 Volunteer Departments face a lot of challenges to get their members trained PROPERLY. First there is the lack of QUALIFIED Instructors, then there is the issue of scheduling around a Volunteers schedule, then there are the (some will say) oppressive requirements that never seem to end for additional training and re-certifications. (I touched on several Department Instructor Issues in this post.)
 If your Department is blessed to have some Qualified Instructors to make your training happen, count yourself very lucky. Most Departments don't. In this sense, when I say "QUALIFIED" I am speaking in a very strict sense. An Instructor should have Certification (preferably Pro-Board) as a Fire Service Instructor (FSI) ONE in order to deliver instruction of material which was already developed. If an Instructor is to write and deliver their own classes, they should be Certified at the FSI TWO level. (I wrote  little about my FSI experiences here.) If your Instructor is going to develop CURRICULUM, they need the FSI 3. If any Instructor is delivering materials on behalf of an agency, they need that agencies "Authority to Teach" for that particular class (this would be State and Federal Training Center Courses). In my State, you cannot get "Authority to Teach" for any State classes unless you are on the payroll as a State (SFI), County (CFI), or Municipal (MTO), Fire Instructor (Volunteer Instructors need not apply). In addition, my state has recently added a whole pile of new requirements for those Instructors so that the bottom line is that you cannot attain 'Authority to Teach' for anything until you have spent about a week at the Academy (after all your FSI work, and after being hired by an Agency). This makes it damn near impossible for a Volunteer agency to go it on their own, no matter how robust they might be. Add to this the inevitable bureaucratic fiefdoms of State and County Governments and you have quite a dysfunctional mess. My State may be different from yours but in all States where I have talked to Departments I find they have similar situations with many of the details moved around. In the end though, just about every Department faces a real challenge to get their members good training.
 So the average Volunteer Department rarely finds themselves in a situation where they get a new member, send him/her off to training, and then get them to work. It just does not work that way in most cases. Classes aren't available when they can go, or the right classes aren't being offered just now, or the schedule does not fit for that member, or their are no Instructors available, or there is no funding available.
 Most Departments try hard to get a new member trained internally in some form with a mentor, internal 'probie classes', or some sort of OJT. They use experienced members as instructors and mentors, because those folks know the job. The problem with this is that these instructors 'don't know what they don't know' and it's not their fault. I see many Departments put on excellent training on their own, and the students get a lot out of it, and it accomplishes the goal of transferring knowledge, BUT, it doesn't count for squat when reviewed in a court of law.
 Why, you ask? Well, first of all, just as with a Patient Care Report, 'if you didn't write it down, it didn't happen'. In order for training to 'count' there MUST be a lesson plan which outlines everything taught in that class. It should include the Objectives, the teaching materials used, the psycho-motor skills performed, and the assessment (Test) that was performed. Scores should be recorded  as well as notes on any students requiring remediation. All this information should be placed in a packet and kept by the Training Officer. And YES, this is confidential material only available for review by a limited number of people, so it must be secured. (Posting of Grades is Illegal, did you know that? Google: FERPA.) In addition, any reviewing legal authority will want to know what the Instructors Qualifications were to teach this class in the first place, so this information should also be on file. Most Departments fail on these requirements, but get by because they seldom have an accident which drives a lawsuit. Also the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction, i.e.: The Board of Fire Commissioners) thinks they can plead ignorance to these requirements. Until they get sued and learn otherwise.
 So those are some of the obstacles we encounter. How we deal with them is typical of the Volunteer Service, we do the best we can. We use the resources we have and try to put together something that works as well as we can make it. This gives us the widely varied systems we see all around the country, some excellent, some adequate, and some not so great. A few are downright dangerous.
 Best Practices I have seen:
 First and foremost, develop a good central record keeping system. This is a service to your members to keep track of all the effort they have put into their jobs. It also provides a great source of data in the event of that lawsuit.
 Next, find out what the legal teaching requirements are and stick to them as best you can. This means teaching your instructors what is required for lesson plans and helping them get it done. paperwork is part of everything and writing it down, even if it is not perfect, is better than not having a record of what was taught at all. Make some easy forms that they can fill in. Provide support on an ongoing basis. Make it part of the culture.
 Provide good training. Nobody wants to come to a drill that they feel is a waste of their time. You have to make these events interesting and worthwhile. This means that the Instructors MUST know their stuff, do their research, lay out a plan, and come to the drill prepared. (THIS is why Instructors themselves require training.) If you don't have the folks with the right skills, FIND THEM. They could be in the next town, the Department across the Lake or anywhere else. LOOK for them at County meetings, mutual aid calls, conventions, etc. Build a network. ASK them to come in and give a guest class. Many of these folks will be happy to do it for free, expenses, or a small fee. But you have to ASK.
 Share the load. These days with all the training requirements we face it has become damn near impossible for any single Department to take care of themselves. Work with your Mutual Aid Departments and invite them to your trainings events, then go to theirs. It's a beautiful thing. Not every Department has the skills and tools to teach everything, so if you have a strength to provide, say Interior Attack training, provide that for a Department that can then provide you with Technical Rescue Training. The extra benefit of training with those companies put all personnel on a better footing when they have to work a job together.
 Mix it up. Bring in Subject Matter Experts (SME's) from outside the Fire Service such as Engineers from the power company, hybrid car specialists from the local auto-dealer, or Law Enforcement personnel to teach specific information about the areas we all come into contact with where that detailed knowledge will have value, maybe even save you from making a dumb mistake.
 Make every day a training day. Although not a formal (documented) training experience, take advantage of the 'teaching moments' that occur every day out on the job. When you see something that others could benefit from, take a moment back at the station right after the call, to point it out and  discuss it. Highlight those good practices or decisions that your stronger folks do every day.
Look around. Training within your Department is not the only option. Many States have an Office of Homeland Security that conducts some really good training , and/or they have a State Emergency Management Department which also puts on many programs. These sessions are quite often at no charge to the Department or student. My state will even pay for my hotel room when I take some of these classes. Go out and LOOK for these opportunities and get the word out. It's a fantastic way to get in contact with some top notch Instructors and materials. I have even brought some of my EMS folks down for training with the recruit class at the County Police Academy on Tasers and OC Spray. (We may have to treat this stuff right? So why not get some experience with real patients?) This singular, oddball training day was one one the most fun and educational days I have ever spent. (I love to see the reactions when that Taser hits them, I laughed so hard that I cried.)
 Schedule carefully. Don't overload your members with a lot of routine, small, and repetitive classes. Respect their time and have a good class that is run effectively. Having a 'drill of the month plan' is OK IF each of the instructors comes prepared and it is well planned. But if your Department is like many that have a regularly scheduled drill night and the group of 5-10 people assemble and somebody says "OK, what should we drill on this month?" then you have a problem. I have seen some Departments that have a drill every WEEK on the calendar, but I seldom see one of these with EFFECTIVE drills, mostly they turn into work parties, many members are bored with this and don't come, and things go downhill from there.
 Many Departments believe that Volunteers don't have time for training and that putting on training is more than most members can deal with. That is, quite frankly, a bullshit excuse! My experience is that members will come out of the woodwork for good, effective, and efficient training. I have seen this time and time again.  I know a Department that regularly turns out 20-40 students for every training event they put on because the students KNOW they will get a good class, with quality hands-on time, and walk away stronger than when they arrived. This is the key, make good use of the time. I know another Department that has to LIMIT the number of people they allow into their live burn training because they were having too many people show up. Imagine that "We have TOO many people showing up for training", how often have you heard that? (This particular Department is getting burned out providing training for other Departments because those Departments can not put on their own live burns.)
 As you can see, this is one of my 'hot button' topics and this post ran a little long. I'll do some more on this subject after the series is complete, I did not cover a lot of ground I would have liked to fit in here. The main points are these. Have training that is effective, don't waste your members precious time. If you can't do it yourself, get somebody who can. When you train, make sure the experience is worth the time your students are spending in that class. Document every training event you have and make it count.
Be Well, Be Safe, and Be Sharp,
(Note: Part 6 may be slightly delayed due to my meeting/training schedule this week.)

1 comment:

  1. When I took over training and membership records a few years ago I overhauled them all and made them all standard and organized. I was told repeatedly that "there's no point in that" because "we've never done that before!" but I still maintain the records. There IS a point in it, it's easier for me to look at Member X's file and say ok, he was trained on this. Let's review why he can't use it or whatever.

    oh and I'm a nerd.