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State Instruction versus Company Training

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August 01, 2023 | NATIONAL JOSEPH CEA, Correspondent

More than once I have heard company officers say “when you come back from that state fire class then we’ll teach you the correct way.” This of course implied that somehow there were flaws in either the curriculum or the manner in which it was taught by state fire instructors. However, as with most things in life one must consider different perspectives and angles when considering something as important as fire service training.

New York like most states has a comprehensive curriculum for each fire training course that clearly has to be modified every so often in response to new and better techniques and even enrollment numbers. For example, the Firefighter One course is not the same as five or six years ago when I took the blended learning bootcamp. In fact, it has split into BEFO and IFO but usually can be taken back-to-back.

Regardless of where the course curriculum is relative to its content the bottom line is that state fire instructors can ONLY teach what is in the curriculum. More specifically, fire instructor level one cannot modify the course content at all although can change the schedule say due to weather conditions. Fire instructor level two can modify but typically go through a more established procedure to do so. More than anything this is a liability issue. If a state fire instructor teaches a student something outside the curriculum and that student gets injured or worse than the instructor and the state could possibly be liable.

The bottom line is the “tricks of the trade” are not in the state’s curriculum and are typically learned on the job and specific to a given department. I recall one instructor for the authorization course I took at the academy saying that as instructors “we are so caught up with teaching the tricks of the trade that we aren’t teaching the trade itself”. In other words, we aren’t teaching the basics and providing a solid foundation but instead are teaching short cuts which ultimately may cause more firefighter injuries.

Consider that in Pennsylvania local level instructors (according to their state fire website) may have to develop their own lesson plans (https://www.osfc.pa.gov/State%20Fire%20Academy/Local%20Level%20Training%20Program/Pages/Local-Level%20FAQ.aspx). Translation: Hundreds of local level fire instructors are teaching the same course a hundred different ways and that is assuming that a properly written lesson plan is developed. As an instructor in my view this does not provide a solid foundation for all firefighters in that everyone is learning the same course differently – they are learning tricks but not the trade. This could make mutual aid with even more difficult and may in fact be incredibly dangerous when officers and firefighters don’t have a common and solid foundation for firematic techniques.

To drive that point home, in 1949 the Mann Gulch fire claimed 13 wildland firefighters. One reason was the crew boss, Wag Dodge in an attempt to save everyone lit a back fire to burn out the fuel around him but none of his crew recognized what he was doing and tried to outrun the fire instead. Dodge survived along with two others while everyone else perished – and why? Because they didn’t know each other’s techniques. 

All firefighters, officers and instructors regardless of your level of support or contempt for New York’s firematic classes should want everyone to take away the same basic foundation as opposed to multiple instructors teaching different methods and techniques. The US military regardless of the branch of service has all those newly enlisted taking the same basic training and then specializing from there. As a company officer it is incumbent and imperative that you view the state’s curriculum in a similar fashion; as a foundation and initial building block as opposed to being right or wrong. From there, it is a company officer’s responsibility to build on that foundation in accordance with their department’s SOPs. In the end, state fire instructors and company training officers are on the same team and need to understand how and for what reason topics are taught the way they are.    

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JOSEPH CEACorrespondent

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