Overcoming Training Challenges

A question was recently posed in the NVFC Volunteer Voices member forum asking what departments do to get longtime members to take training seriously. This is a challenge a lot of departments face. Longtime members may think they already “know it all” and don’t feel they have anything to learn from new or ongoing training. The following provides some advice and tips for getting senior members to recognize and appreciate the importance of training at all stages of a fire service career.

Remind senior members of their role.

When senior members blow off training and minimalize its importance, it can create a ripple effect throughout the full membership. Newer members look to the senior members for guidance and direction, and if they see their mentors responding negatively to training, they are less likely to take it seriously as well. Instead, longtime members should be encouraging a culture within the department where training is valued as a critical part of being an emergency responder.

Kenn Fontenot suggests reminding senior members that they should be setting the example for new members. “Encourage them to consider their legacy and how they can impact others,” he says.

Fontenot notes that senior members can take lead roles in training activities to share their experience and knowledge with newer members. He also reminds firefighters that continual training is needed to make sure skills remain up-to-date. “Let’s face the fact that skills not used often get rusty, no matter how many times or for how long you have been in the department,” he says.

Keep training relevant and respect members’ time.

Today’s volunteers have more responsibility but typically less time to give than their predecessors did in decades past. If members feel training is a ‘waste of time’ or not relevant to what they do, they will be less likely to be engaged. In addition, a training session that is disorganized or takes longer than scheduled will frustrate many members and contribute to the negative perception.

David Bullard emphasizes the importance of the training content. “Keeping drills relevant, not letting the topics become stagnant, and looking for ways to make it a challenge, without embarrassing your members, also helps,” he notes.

Joe Maruca finds that keeping content relevant and respecting members’ time are critical pieces to a successful training program. As he states: “We learned to be careful about making the training relevant and well organized. We do our best to make sure people don’t feel the training is a waste of time. We plan out our topics, we make sure materials are ready in advance, we stick to schedules, we throw in the occasional drill holiday, we explain the reason for our drills and tie them to specific standards (ISO, EMS, OSHA, NFPA 1001, etc.). We are never winging it – and if we do occasionally wing, we have pre-determined contingency drills so we don’t look like we are winging it.”

Check out this article by Fontenot for more tips on developing a training program.

Make training an integral part of department culture.

Create support for training by making it an integral part of your department’s culture. Chiefs and officers need to lead by example by continually emphasizing the importance of training and by showing up to drills and training events.

Maruca says that in his department, “we have institutionalized training to a point where it is simply a part of our culture and most people don’t question it.”

He goes on to explain that the department follows a six-month training schedule, and each quarter the firefighters are given a performance report that tells them how much training they’ve done and how it measures against the department’s goals. “Chiefs and officers almost never miss a drill – it’s how we send a signal that training is important,” he says. “We never cancer drills…. It took some years, but we’ve reached a point where the average firefighter in our department trained 160 hours last year.”

He also notes that some people may never get on board, but that the department shouldn’t lessen their emphasis on training because of the holdouts. “At some point, you’ll have to let a few people walk away because they won’t get with the program. Don’t be held hostage by these people.”

Motivate your members.

Sometimes your firefighters may need inspiration or a morale boost from department leaders to get them motivated about training. Maruca brings out a football speech when he feels his members need such a boost.

“The football speech comes out when someone complains about the repetitiveness of our training. I talk about how Tom Brady does the same drills week after week. He throws hundreds [of passes] every week in practice. The Patriots run the same plays over and over and over again. They know the drills, but they happily do them over and over at the same time each week. I tell everyone this is what makes them champions, and we need to be champions.”

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