Training for Failure in the United States Fire Service

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David O’Neal


Each year in the United States, fire departments are faced with the challenge of preparing firefighters to respond safely and effectively while the fire service landscape continues to change. The addition of new responsibilities like emergency medical services and other all-hazards responses has deeply impacted the time available for training. Furthermore, the fire service has seen a significant decrease in structure fires. For example, fire departments nationwide responded to 2,326,500 fires in 1983, but only responded to 1,240,000 fires in 2014. This decrease of over a million fires, combined with the added responsibilities, directly impacts the amount of hands-on experience firefighters are receiving.
These circumstances are further impacted by changes in fire dynamics and building construction. While firefighters gain general knowledge of these components through the broader based training models like lectures or videos, they are at a tremendous disadvantage if they do not experience kinetic training in these areas. Observing the effect of fire on current construction and structure contents can be valuable to firefighters. Especially considering recent tests by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which confirm significantly faster burn rates in structures, it is estimated that occupants today have three minutes to exit a structure, compared to 17 minutes 30 years ago. Failure to train in this type of live environment to gain first-hand knowledge could put firefighters at a significant risk.
The U.S. fire service currently lacks any type of enforceable national standards on firefighter training. Individual states establish the number of continuing educational hours required to maintain state firefighter certifications. Some states do not have any set training requirements for firefighters. Furthermore, individual fire departments have control over the content and delivery method of training for their department. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) does offer recommendations that provide minimum job performance and safety guidelines for firefighters. However, the NFPA is a civilian-run organization with no authority or enforcement power.
When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, it is felt by firefighters nationwide. Most line of duty deaths (LODDs) are investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The reason for the investigation is not to determine blame, but rather to understand why the death occurred. The investigation will also provide recommendations for fire departments so others do not repeat the actions that resulted in the firefighter’s death. Every NIOSH LODD investigation has resulted in identifying deficiencies in training as a root cause for the death. Despite attempts by NIOSH to educate fire departments, LODDs continue to happen as departments fail to learn from other’s mistakes.
In an attempt to meet current challenges, fire departments employ various training methods. This thesis examines different training models currently used, such as learning management systems (LMS), large-group lectures, and tabletop exercises, which have all gained popularity because they are cost effective, user friendly, and can be delivered to large groups. However, these methods lack the ability for students to create muscle memory through repetition, a foundation that helps firefighters develop frames of reference to encourage rapid recall when making life-or-death decisions on a fire ground. Studies have shown this type of kinetic training is also preferred by firefighters as the standard method of training.
To appreciate the importance of training in the fire service, it must first be understood how cognitive processes affect learning and performance in a dynamic environment that demands the ability to make decisions instantaneously. This thesis explores several concepts that impact cognitive ability, including the recognition primed decision making and the importance of expertise and how it affects the development of foundational knowledge through realistic training and job-related experience. Another theory, working memory model, explains how information needed in the moment is held and manipulated in memory, in particular how memory and recall are significantly impacted by stress and anxiety. Finally, the inverted U-relationship and cue utilization theory offer answers on how stress and anxiety affect overall human performance.
Decision making under stress offers a unique challenge to firefighters. People do not typically need to train for an environment in which they will be required to make immediate, life or death decisions under stressful conditions. For a firefighter, however, this skill is essential. Adding stress to training, to make circumstances more realistic, is believed to make training more impactful. The research considers how other organizations, such as the U.S. Army and Air Force, recognize the value of conducting realistic training to prepare their members for engagement. Professional sports also provide an argument for realistic training. The National Football League continues to conduct full-pad, full-contact practices to prepare for games, because it recognizes the importance of duplicating game conditions for maximum preparation. Finally, an elite fire training organization known as the Georgia Smoke Divers (GSD) provides insight into how to train firefighters more effectively. The GSD promotes stress inoculation by exposing students to physical and mental exhaustion in an attempt to impact the psychological state of participants for them to develop successful responses under these types of conditions.
Finally, this thesis looks at other training challenges faced by fire departments, including individual ability, organizational leadership, organizational culture, and unpredictable circumstances. As individuals learn and retain information differently, firefighters operate at various levels of cognitive ability, which makes repetitive training even more important for some. An individual who performs tasks well during training will most likely do the same during an actual crisis. Leadership and fire department culture also factors into the challenges fire departments face. Training requires the support of formal and informal leaders of fire departments to add validity, and make the training effective. Certainly, the potential always exists for unpredictable circumstances to occur that exceed the capabilities of firefighters and fire departments. The ultimate goal is to avoid creating an unpredictable situation as a result of poor decisions made by firefighters.

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