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ARFF Leaders: Are We Training Them for Failure?

 By William Greenwood

 One of the biggest challenges for the professional educator is how to stay up to date on the latest ways to engage students for a positive behavioral modification experience. Most of us understand that one-size-fits-all training in the fire service doesn’t engage everybody. But, is it bigger than that? Depending on your student’s intelligence map (which is personality based for each student in the fire service), some of them can easily read a chapter in the textbook, comprehend the material, and ultimately retain that information for use at a later date while others simply cannot.

The 3 Biggest Challenges As I See Them
The ARFF Industry is driven by many minimum standards. Some of those can be from the FAA, the NFPA, or the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization). These organizations recommend or require certain levels of initial and annual firefighter training and levels of fire-rescue protection. Understanding that the ARFF industry is heavily governed by the federal government as compared to our counterparts in the structural firefighting world, one would think our required annual training would make us ready to respond with a high level of service. So, why do we see problems or mishaps when these incidents occur?

Challenge #1: The Working Environment Is Like Nothing You Have Seen Before
The working environment at the time of alarm exposes the aircraft rescue firefighter to extreme levels of stress. High-stress incidents have been proven to decrease a person’s IQ by 50 percent over a few minutes of acute exposure. This factor alone will immediately decrease your level of services from the industry minimum (if you choose to train to the minimums) by 50 percent.

Challenge #2 – The Training Schedule Is Often Replicated Over and Over
Training officers who have been doing this for a long time need to continually seek professional development themselves. You see, if you have never seen what other ARFF departments are doing, then the only thing you know is what you know in house. If that is the case, you will become a product of the environment you were raised in. This creates a huge shortcoming when we are required to prove our worth. Lives are at stake, and we may have never been exposed to the complexities associated with today’s emergency. Yes, training must start basic, where we build a foundation of knowledge, skills, and abilities. But once that foundation has been laid, we must advance our knowledge to include not only new training material, technology, and equipment, but we MUST focus on the student’s learning environment as well.

Challenge #3: Are They Ready for Stress-Induced Tactics?
Training often is based in a highly controlled and safe learning environment. That said, if your training environment doesn’t match your working environment, you are potentially setting your firefighters up for failure. For example, ARFF vehicle operations in low visibility conditions like fog, rain, snow, and darkness can be challenging. Does your driver-operator program include actually operating the apparatus in these types of conditions before the incident occurs? If the answer is no, then how can you possibly expect the A Team to show up on game day. Now, many of you will say yes, we have our drivers drive the apparatus with a blacked out windshield and operate via the onboard FLIR camera system. But I will further challenge you: can your firefighters function to a level of capacity when their heart rate is 150 beats per minute or higher? You see, acute stress can cause the body to have a physiological response to the report of an aviation accident. Many firefighters will attempt to replicate training that they have done for years but struggle to remember the steps, the process, and the knowledge base to safely operate that apparatus while others may suffer stress-induced paralysis. The stress of the incident simply freezes up the firefighter who ultimately produces little to no fireground functionality.

Preparing Battle-Ready Brothers and Sisters
Good fire instructors will create a basic foundation for behavioral modification. They will then increase the student’s knowledge base with advanced training and tactics. Advanced instructors will then attempt to replicate real-world working environments by adding challenges that students must be able to identify and overcome.

Top-quality, industry-leading fire instructors who desire to take their firefighters and the organization to the elite level must have an elite instructor knowledge base. That next level training is achieved by indentifying the student’s intelligence map and developing individualized training or training tips to achieve maximum comprehension and retention. That next level will include stress-induced tactical training evolutions. Providing evolutions that firefighters need to not only identify challenges and formulate Plan A and B but then overcome those obstructions that prevent cognitive thinking. Firefighters who are first-time, first-experience operators not prepared for high-stress decision making often yield decision making from the limbic portion of their brain. The limbic mode is where the fight-or-flight mechanism is activated. Often times the underdeveloped first responder, with low emotional intelligence will make decisions based on personal survival and not from their past educational experiences unless that past educational included stress-induced tactical training.

A Quick Classic Example
Most firefighters are trained to say LUNAR to call a MAYDAY. Many fire departments do this type of training annually in the station with portable radios. Unfortunately the under-developed training instructor who completes this training annually in a nonstress environment may think he or she is properly preparing the firefighter to remember the acronym but is actually not. In the nonstress environment, a large percentage of firefighters can remember what LUNAR means, but next time you are doing SCBA search and rescue training, have the firefighters attempt to recite and give a LUNAR radio report to the incident commander while buried under a simulated ceiling collapse. Without warning, drop one of the fire station mattresses on the firefighter and sit on top of it. While the firefighter is physically impeded to find his radio microphone and mentally challenged because that stress causes his or her brain to go into a fight or flight mode, watch what happens when they can’t remember what the acronym means. That is one example of how important stress-induced tactical training can be with zero impact to the operating budget. Training for the environment you’re expected to work in will make a huge difference in firefighter survival and increase the level of services we provide the flying public.

Are you embracing stress-induced ARFF tactical training? Are you making sure your firefighters can point out and operate every control, switch, and button in the cab of that apparatus in zero visibility? That includes all the controls for equipment—HRET and the fire-pump operations without sight. Everyone can easily read the labels on the dashboard on a good day. I am talking about hood-on-backwards, zero-visibility training!  That hood combined with an instructor who creates some verbal, time-sensitive stress will provide a benchmark of readiness. Are you training for failure with the HRET or fire suppression pump operations—unforeseen actions like loss of water, cavitation and/or mechanical failures, etc.? Instructors who successfully allow a student to prove the skill then sabotage the apparatus and equipment on the next evolution can recreate mechanical failures that the operator must work through flying solo. Once again, with a seasoned fire instructor who is creating verbal time-sensitive stress, will your firefighters sink or swim?

Remember: the bare minimum is one level above substandard in a “controlled training environment.” Do not fall for the trap that meeting “the standard” is going to keep you and your department safe and out of trouble in the aftermath of a high-stress event. Average training breeds an average fire department! Prepare your firefighters and fire instructors to be the best they can possibly be!

WILLIAM GREENWOOD is a 26-year veteran of the fire service. He is currently the Assistant Fire Chief of Training at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. He is a Senior Staff Instructor for the New Hampshire Fire Academy and owns FETC Services, which provides advanced firefighter and leadership training/consultation services. He is also a national speaker for FDIC International and has been published in Fire Engineering and FireRescue.


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