Back to the Basics: Build a training program that refocuses your troops

Back to the Basics
How to build a training program that refocuses your troops on their primary mission

By William Sturgeon

Several years ago, I was playing golf with a friend of mine who happened to be a triple-A baseball pitcher. I wasn’t playing very well that day, so I asked him, “What do you do when you start pitching poorly?” He told me he always goes back to his fundamentals and recommits himself to mastering the basics again.

This made me start thinking about training in the fire service. In many departments, we’ve gotten away from the basics of our craft, firefighting. There are a litany of reasons, including the advent of value-added services such as EMS, hazmat mitigation, urban search and rescue, technical rescue, terrorism response and an increasing role in emergency management. All of these are worthwhile endeavors, however, they sometimes come with a tradeoff, in that we spend less time mastering the fundamentals.

I began to realize that many of my department’s firefighters hadn’t had an opportunity to master the basics or had become rusty. We needed to refocus our personnel on the basics—putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. As a result, we developed a program we call Back to the Basics (BtB). This program is designed to allow both our newest and our more experienced firefighters to polish their basic skills in firefighting.

Our challenge: to train more than 1,000 people on three shifts in 42 fire stations, running 250 calls per day. This is how we did it, and you can do it too!

You can't predict all the configurations of hose layouts that will be required to cover every fire. However, drilling on basics such as advancing attack lines will prepare your company to produce adequate fire flows for any situation. Photos Steve Kidd

The Program
To successfully initiate a program like BtB, management must commit to making it a priority. I’m not saying that you’ll stop running calls, but significant time must be allocated to the program.
In addition, you must establish BtB training. These may include:

  • Maintain accountability for personal safety and the safety of others during training and emergency operations;
  • Master basic skills working in full protective equipment;
  • Master use of basic tools, appliances and firefighting tasks;
  • Learn to apply tasks to emergency operations (training in context);
  • Master teamwork (firefighting is a team sport); and
  • Improve critical thinking skills
Next, determine what skills need to be focused on during the training. Examples: hose evolutions (attack and supply), ladder raises, salvage/overhaul, forcible entry, SCBA and Rule of Air Management, and basic review of strategy and tactics. Break each of these skills down further into requirements for mastery. These are called knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) or Job Performance Requirements (JPRs).

A myriad of texts can be used to develop drills, adjusting as appropriate for your department. The bottom line: The training must be focused on basic skills mastery and must be department specific.

Writing Drills

Next, select the instructors who will teach your BtB program. This is where you bring in the “old salts,” or the members who know how to really fight fire (yes, they still do exist!). Why do we need these guys? They can put things in perspective and help train in context rather than theory. Once they’re on board, you’re ready to start writing outlines.

Write a simple outline for a basic skill, then have the old salts walk through each drill and get their input. Next, put some of your chief officers through the drills (alpha test) and get their input. After this, select a few companies to test the evolutions (beta test). Again, encourage input on how the training can be improved before deploying it to the troops.

Testing the drill using chief officers and select companies enhances department buy-in and establishes department standards for future firefighters. Enhance the learning process by documenting, videotaping or photographing the evolutions for standardization purposes.

Going Live
Schedule BtB training during a time when crews can fully concentrate on it. If possible, bring several companies together at the academy or at a location where they can continue to serve their response areas. One unit can remain available for calls or use a reserve apparatus, if available.
Instructors should begin by explaining the purpose of the training. Make it competitive: Set a time standard for each evolution (if practical) to put the firefighting team under a little bit of stress and make the training fun (firefighters are very competitive).

Set a clear beginning date and an ending date for the training. Provide each company with the drill package in advance and encourage them to train before and after participating in the evolutions. Document each company’s performance and post it somewhere where everyone can see it. Which company is best? Competitiveness will encourage improved performance.

In addition to hose evolutions, back-to-basics drills can include power saw applications, ladder raises, salvage/ overhaul, forcible entry, and air management. Break each of these
skills down further into requirements
for mastery. Photos Steve Kidd

Sample Drill: Power Saw Operation
Note: See complete PDF attached to this post.
Circular saws are generally used for cutting concrete and steel, while chainsaws are better suited to cut wood. Both types of saws are driven by a two-stroke engine. This means that oil must be added to the gasoline for operating. The most common problems with starting a saw include stale fuel, flooding from overchoking the engine, a clogged air filter or a fouled spark plug, so these should be checked regularly. This drill covers checking and starting a power saw.

Checking a Power Saw
  1. Make sure the engine is off, the chain stopped and the muffler cool before working on the saw.
  2. Check all the fasteners on the saw and make sure they are tight. Check all the wear points on the anti-vibration system for wear or “bottoming out.” On a chainsaw, check the chain brake device for operation. The bar, chain and sprocket on a chainsaw require a lot of cleaning and maintenance, and are wear points on the saw.
  3. Check the air filter. Clean or replace the filter when needed. Always close the choke on the saw before removing the filter to keep debris from falling into the carburetor.
  4. Check the blade/chain for tightness, deformities, missing teeth, core cracks on the surface of a blade or other issues.
  5. Check the fuel level, and the bar oil level if it is a chainsaw.
  6. Start the saw. If it is a chainsaw, make sure the chain doesn’t move while the saw is idling. If it still moves, send the saw in for adjustment. Allow the saw to run until it reaches normal operating temperature, then shut it off and allow it to cool before returning it to the truck.

Starting a Power Saw:
Note: Start the saw on the ground, then shut it down before moving on a roof or climbing a ladder. Use the chain brake on a chainsaw.

  1. Ensure that the saw is safe and ready for service (see check process above). Visually inspect the chain or cutting wheel for deformities.
  2. Prepare the saw: Move the run/stop switch to the run position. If the saw is cold, pull out the choke fully. If the saw is warm, pull the choke to the half-stop position. If the saw is hot, leave the choke alone. Lock the throttle trigger in the start position.
  3. With the saw firmly on the deck, brace the saw with your foot or knee and pull the rope sharply until it starts. Immediately put the choke in the off position and move the trigger to the idle position, letting the saw warm to the proper running temperature.
  4. Move the run/stop switch to the stop position to shut the saw down.

Sample Drill: Pulling an Attack Line
Note: See complete PDF attached to this post.
There’s no way to predict the various configurations of hose layouts that will be required to cover every fire. However, a company proficient in various evolutions and provided a sustained water supply should be able to produce adequate fire flows for any situation.

Note: This evolution is designed to work with a crew of three (Officer-OC, Engineer-EN and Firefighter–FF1). On four-person units the second firefighter position (FF2) will replace the company officer when pulling and connecting hose lines.

Pulling Pre-connected Attack Lines (1 ¾")
Description: Attack engine will deploy a 1 ¾" attack line for quick attack on a fire.
Objective: To properly deploy a pre-connected triple layer load 1 ¾" attack line to the entrance of an involved structure or object for extinguishment.

  1. The attack engine arrives on the scene. After a quick size- up, the company officer calls for a 1 ¾" attack line to be deployed, advising the amount of line needed to reach the objective.
  2. FF1 grabs the nozzle and fold of the first tier of the attack line and places over their shoulder.
  3. Walking away from the apparatus, the FF pulls the hose COMPLETELY out of the bed, dropping the folded end from the shoulder when the hose has been cleared.
  4. FF1 advances the nozzle to the fire. The engineer confirms which line and charges the line.
  5. FF1 opens nozzle, bleeds air from the line, confirms nozzle pattern and prepares for extinguishment.

Standard: The second attack line pulled will be greater or equal in length than the initial attack line. Therefore the initial attack line pulled on a structure fire should be 150 feet in length
when practical. If a 200' line is needed, then the second line should be immediately extended to 200 feet, or better yet, a Garden Lay should be stretched. All adjustable fog nozzles on 1 ¾" crosslays and rear loads will be set at 150 gpm for initial fire attack. Adjustable fog nozzles in the front jump line should be set at 125 gpm.

Why: Initial attack line length is critical for ease of movement and ability to reach the seat of the fire. The second line being of a greater or equal length provides the advantage of taking the line to the fire if the first one comes up short and having the length to add additional gpm to the fire if needed. The initial nozzle setting of 150 gpm provides a specific pump discharge pressure for the engineer. The engineer doesn’t have to deal with calculations to determine the initial line pressures. When working from a booster tank, only one 1 ¾" line should be flowed until a sustained water supply is established.

Putting It All Together
The final step in mastering the basics: Develop a comprehensive drill that brings together all of the skills from the BtB training. Again, make it competitive and hold people accountable for the standards emphasized during the training. Ensure that after each evolution, crews are encouraged to give input about how well it went—we’re our own best critics.

In the sports world, there’s a common phrase, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Think about it. And stay safe!

William Sturgeon, EMT-P, is the division chief of training for the Orange County (Fla.) Fire Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health from Columbia Southern University and is an Instructor III and a 1403 live-fire instructor. Sturgeon has taught and developed numerous classes on fire suppression and special operations. He’s responsible for training a staff of more than 1,000 personnel in EMS, fire suppression, hazardous materials, technical rescue and human relations.

Outside Operations.pdf
Attack Hose Evolutions.pdf

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by larry jenkins on March 5, 2010 at 7:33am
Good article, it seems in the fire service that everyone now a days wants to be an expert at something. This is where we screw up. It's the basics that get the job done. I work in a busy house (9,500 calls last year) and we are constantly getting recruits assigned to us. Most people think this is a pain, but I like it. In order for you to teach, you need to be good at it. By getting a recruit every 6 months, everyone has to stay abreast of all the basics. You may be the best at haz mat or tech rescue, but if you can't pull a hoseline correctly. Then your not doing me much good.
Comment by Rich on March 3, 2010 at 2:49pm
We practiced the basic fire attack with a modification. Being a volunteer department, we train most everyone at one time. We would have 2 teams on 2 attack pumpers and 1 going for a draft at the "stream". A driver, officer and 4 firefighters. 2 firefighters on each 1 3/4 hose. Fastest time for 1 line, then second line. Quickest draft to supply. If your back up on the line didn't get your hose unkinked, left forceable entry tools or a handlight behind, you got a penalty. This kind of drill was fun, competitive and promoted commeraderie and team work. On drill nights with these drills, out attendance was a bit higher, and the young guys were always eager to learn and participate. The drivers learned better and faster pump techniques and practicing drafting can be a humbling experience. Another modification would be a forward lay with one firefighter to do a full New York hookup with a 4", ball valves, etc., and then commence handline operations.
Comment by J. D. Rinard on February 27, 2010 at 8:44am
Good post. and thank you!
Comment by FETC on February 24, 2010 at 7:18pm
Good article. Hope you busted your probie for the lack of gloves in the first photo. Basic PPE

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