The Purpose of Training and Training With A Purpose

When is the last time you had a productive training session? Are you training with a purpose? I would hope we can all say we train minimally on a semi-frequent basis. But are we training the right way? Are we really “training” or just are we just spinning our wheels? As they say… “A rocking horse keeps moving but it doesn’t make any progress” Here is an example.

Sitting around the table the other day at the volunteer house, one of the newer members asked for some help with his “Rookie Book”. Another member, with only about one year in, jumped at the opportunity to showcase his own skills and suggested they pull some hand lines together. Being a huge advocate of only one lead instructor I saw this as a good opportunity for me to sit back and let the one year guy show the newest member a few things that he himself had learned in the past.

I watched these two deploy the cross lay several times to a side door on the firehouse, simulating the front door of a dwelling. I watched as they took their time on each stretch, consistently finishing evolutions with kinks in the hose. They paused when things weren’t going right and took their time through each evolution. After about 45 minutes, they had completed what they thought was a successful training session.  I was excited to see these two new members motivated (self-motivated, at that) to train, however I could practically see the skid marks from the wheels they had just spun for the past 45 minutes. Zero productivity. I had just watched 2 guys stretch a 200ft 1 ¾ cross lay across an empty parking lot, to a side door with zero obstructions. They were not wearing PPE, the scenario (or target of the stretch) never changed, and there was zero  sense of urgency. On top of that, when they were done they felt accomplished! They did not recognize the fatal flaws of non-productive training. I applauded them for the effort and repetitions they put in but if we are only conducting bad reps then bad results is what we will get.

Let’s think about this for just a second. An hour from now, these same two FF’s could quite possibly be first-in on a dwelling fire. With the engine parked 50’ from the door, they now have to manage a 200ft hand line with only 50’ to flake it out. They will possibly (probably) have to flake it around parked cars, bushes, railings, fences, with an unknown number of potential pinch points. Throw this together with fire showing or a report of people trapped (that sense of urgency I mentioned earlier) and these two are bound to fail. We would then sit back and say “Why was this such a bad stretch?” or “What went wrong?”, “We have trained with hand lines before, they pull lines on their own all the time…Right?!”

I asked myself what the purpose of this training was. Who did this benefit? Where did the idea to train like this come from? Sure, pulling hand lines is great and not every scenario needs to be a back breaking, hose humping exercise, but this? This was garbage. After the training I pulled the leading member aside and asked about his training. His answer was simple …“Well, it’s just what I have always done”. Lightbulb moment for me. I remembered a quote by Jocko Willink; “…if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard”.

Bingo. This instructing member, with just one year in a volunteer department, has little to no actual fireground experience. Everything this person has ever learned about stretching hand lines has been in an empty parking lot. This mentality, this poor training, was all taught to him by…US. We are the ones who have led him through this same training in the past. We have trained him to this new substandard level. This is the normalization of deviance! We have become so accustomed to this type of training that we no longer recognize it as substandard. He now took these habits, this new standard of training and is passing it on to others. A recipe for disaster.

 Members conduct simple hose deployment but are wearing full PPE and SCBA to add realism. The evolution used this entrance door in reverse to add obstacles to deploy around. The "inside" of the structure was the actual outside.

Members conduct simple hose deployment but are wearing full PPE and SCBA to add realism. The evolution used this entrance door in reverse to add obstacles to deploy around. The "inside" of the structure was the actual outside.

How do we fix this? How do we stop this dangerous snowball from continuing to roll downhill? Simple. Be the change you want to see. Find the knowledge and become the instructor you wish you had as a new firefighter. Knowledge is not passed through diffusion or osmosis. Learning and teaching are activities requiring engagement from both sides. 

Start leading more realistic training sessions and get as close to that real life scenario that we are bound to one day face. Stretch around obstacles, change your point of attack, throw on some PPE, and change up the scenario. Finally, probably most importantly, change your mindset. Train with the mentality that you might face this scenario one day because chances are, you will. When you do this, when you start training with the right mentality and a purpose, others WILL follow. The guys you train with will then also start leading more realistic and productive trainings. Over time, that new standard will be one that you can be proud of.  Hold yourself accountable, excel in your training, and train like your life depends on it. It does.

For more information on how to conduct reality based training check out Training at the Speed of Life by Kenneth R. Murray. In this training manual the author describes both the science and need behind realistic training scenarios and repetitions for successful real life results.