Not long ago, I read an article suggesting firefighters should slow down during training sessions to increase duplication of the skills presented. This seems like a valid argument to ensure basic and advanced skills are learned and mastered. We can look at this type of training as practice, where more time is needed to focus on the subject. While I agree we must take more time when learning new skills and reinforcing important information, our training must also include high intensity and stressful situations. This type of training is more of a dress rehearsal for the main event. Managing the stress and intensity of the fireground is critical and our training should prepare us for it. During high intensity training, we must also learn and understand our limitations. Firefighters need to be tested in training to know how they will react under pressure. This not only prepares us for the next call, but it also gives us a foundation to build our training upon. With positive reinforcement and focused teaching, an undesirable outcome in training can be overcome. With all of that said, we must still make our training ground a safe learning environment that will not have drastic consequences if skills are performed wrong. Strive to amp up your training sessions, but do so with safety of your firefighters as priority.
It can’t be said for all departments, but most have seen a decrease in fires over the last decade. Many of our new recruits are completing their basic training and not seeing a fire for months or even longer. Even our veteran firefighters aren’t using their skills on a regular basis. If firefighters aren’t obtaining real world experience, will they be ready when called upon? Is your training program delivering realistic and intense training that closely duplicates what we face during an actual emergency? The use of media and other online resources has enhanced our training, but in a stressful situation a firefighter will recall what he has practiced rather than what he has watched. The idea of high stress and intensity filled training is not a new idea in the fire service. I remember attending classes taught by Tim Sendelbach over ten years ago as he stressed this concept and those same drills are still used today. The more we expose our firefighters to realistic training that mirrors the real fireground environment, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome. As we repeat those skills in training we start to build muscle memory and the training ground is then transferred to the fireground. This further reinforces the old saying of “practice like you play.”
Stress inoculation is intended to train and prepare personnel, in advance, to handle stressful situations successfully. Soldiers and police officers have been using this type of training for years as much of their focus involves survival and defense training. In their book, On Combat, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, along with Loren W. Christensen, examines what happens to the body under the extreme stress of combat, deadly situations, and even high stress situations of peace workers (firefighters, hospital workers, etc.). Throughout this book and other related studies, several perceptual distortions were outlined and capable of occurring during deadly force or stressful situations. Some of the most common findings were: diminished sound (auditory exclusion), tunnel vision, and increased memory loss. Diminished sound can lead to important radio transmissions not being heard. Tunnel vision prevents us from seeing the big picture while memory loss can prevent us from recalling critical knowledge needed in a hazardous situation. Essentially, by creating stressful and intense situations in training we are attempting to create a “been there, done that” mentality that will help in the event an incident occurs during real life.
Another area to consider is introducing physical fitness in your firefighter training. Obviously, being in better shape will help us to perform our job more proficiently. Many of you probably stopped reading at this point, but hear me out. Including exercises that resemble fireground activities is perfect for adding stress and intensity. With any training program, make sure your members are medically cleared to perform these actions. Physical exhaustion can cause us to make bad decisions and may lead to injury or death. In some of our recent drills, our members cycled through a course to elevate intensity while staying in line with common fireground functions. All tasks were performed wearing bunker gear and SCBA. Below is the sequence of tasks:
After completing the fifth task, firefighters pair up to perform a large area search with very little information. Both firefighters had their mask obscured to simulate a smoky environment. The two-man team was advised to follow a charged hoseline into the structure and attempt to find a lost firefighter that was last reported at the nozzle. After reaching the nozzle, no firefighter was found and there was no PASS device or radio traffic. Firefighters were forced to think of a search plan and communicate to locate the lost firefighter and then remove him/her from the structure. It was interesting to watch the reactions and what our members did and didn’t do. I guarantee you will be surprised if you run this drill in your station. The key is to have the firefighters mildly exhausted before completing the search. Even though many of our firefighters are well-trained and capable, exhaustion and low air supply can cause you to make decisions that you wouldn’t normally make. This goes back to the perceptual distortions that were mentioned by Lt. Col. Grossman. Change up the sequence or replace tasks to create your own drill. Create even more intensity and competiveness by adding a time limit to determine a winning team. Training should be serious and safe, but it should also be fun. Many of our members reached their limitations that evening and some were disappointed with their results. If anything it made them question their readiness, competency and fitness level. I believe most of our guys walked away that night more determined to do better in training and on actual calls.
Training has become more technology driven and we must accept that, but we must prevent our training from becoming watered down. We need to be preparing our mind and bodies for the inherent stress and dangers of our job. Our mentality should be like that of the Officer Creed of Survival: "The will to survive, to survive the attack, must be uppermost in my mind, preparation is key to my survival and I will survive; not just by good luck and good fortune, but by my skills." Intensity driven training will assist you and your personnel in handling a stressful environment and more importantly it will make you harder to kill. Get outside and train, push past your limitations and increase your combat readiness!
Captain Brad Maness
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