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Handling Disruptions

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January 01, 2024 | NATIONAL JOSEPH CEA, Correspondent

In the fire service the vast majority of training is hands-on, psychomotor drills although in most cases there is also a cognitive component that usually accompanies those drills. Possibly a discussion as a preliminary background or reflective piece afterward but both are usually done in the classroom.   

In spite of and one could argue “because of” being a firefighter is an inherently dangerous job there are plenty of wiseguys and gals to lighten the mood and any tension. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fortunately, we are dealing with adult education and so the flip side of the coin is that most firefighters also understand the seriousness and quasi-military nature of the profession. Therefore they put in their due diligence in order to learn new techniques or practice old ones without being disruptive. 

The best way to handle disruptions is to prevent them from happening in the first place. This means that you have to have a thorough working knowledge of the topic so that you earn respect, present yourself professionally and appropriately dressed, don’t curse while speaking, and of course avoid any disparaging remarks. As a result, upwards of 90% of disruptions will never take place. Still, there can be some challenges.  

Classroom Rules and Pre-Class Announcements: Emphasizing and continuing the prevention aspect many disruptions can also be taken care of right out of the gate by designating a few rules. For example, point out where the bathrooms are located and indicate to just slip out quietly if you need to use them or get a drink of water or a snack. Everyone now knows in accordance with Maslow’s hierarchy that their physiological needs are being taken into consideration. Same thing with frequent breaks. As mentioned this is adult education and being respectful at the onset will pay dividends as the drill continues in the form of fewer unscripted disruptions.     

The number one disruption these days has to be hands down the cell phone. Here again is where a policy announcement prior to saves a lot of headaches and prevents having to go down a disciplinary road. Something to the effect of “We are all adults, we all have families and it may be necessary to take or make a phone call. I just ask that you turn the ringer down and take any call outside the classroom”. Set a tone of respect and the firefighters in your class will give that respect back to you.  

The last pre-class announcement is to limit the storytelling. In every firefighter training class whether career or volunteer there are always stories to be told and there is ALWAYS that one person who wants the spotlight on them by telling war stories. As the instructor that wants to limit the storytelling make sure you send a clear message that those stories “while certainly entertaining will only take us away from our focus”. Further indicate that you may call on someone to provide some background in the form of a story if it demonstrates an SOP that a particular department has. “However, the best way is to see me during the break and I will be happy to hear any story you may have and then if relevant will be relayed to the class”.  

Wise Guy/Gal: Like the storyteller these folks ALWAYS want the instructor to know who they are. As mentioned, a joke or two to ease any tension isn’t a bad thing but when the jokester goes beyond an ice breaker what they are really doing is challenging your authority in the classroom. It is very tempting to call them out in front of the class but this ultimately has the desired effect of undermining your authority as the instructor. Instead, talk to that student during a break and ask that they tone down the jokes/stories. Warn them that you will contact their Chief if the issue continues. Having taken these steps it is OK to ask a disruptive student to leave citing safety issues for those that wish to pay attention.

Above all DO NOT engage in any banter/jokes that disparages other firefighters. Especially when those jokes are sexist or racist etc. Remember “If you grin you’re in” which means if you as the instructor laugh at a sexist joke then you are a party to that joke and can and should be held responsible for not stopping it forthwith.   

Talkers: As a secondary science teacher and fire instructor I can’t even begin to tell you how disruptive it is to have a student constantly talking while you are teaching. Again, it is tempting to call that student out in front of the class but resist that urge. It is acceptable to try and raise your voice slightly but sometimes the talker will double down and raise their voice as well. In that case do just the opposite and lower your voice so that everyone must strain to hear you. This has the effect of isolating the talkers who are now disrupting the entire class and not just the instructor.

There are two other strategies that work very well at limiting disruptions. The first is to circulate throughout the room and not just stand in one location. Whereas disruptive firefighters want to announce their presence they are less likely to do so when the instructor is standing next to them. The last strategy is to get them involved. That can be easier said than done. How do you go about that? Ask the talkers a relevant question or try to engage in a conversation that is subject specific and beneficial to the class. When they can’t answer because they weren’t paying attention to the instructor they will only embarrass themself.

You could even ask them for a story because at that point you are controlling that exchange. If they can’t or don’t want to contribute, emphasize that any comments going forward should be specific and limited to the subject at hand and always positive in nature.

The fire service is no different in terms of instruction and the need to limit disruptions. Fortunately, firefighters for the most part realize that reliance on their training is the only thing that will get them out of a sticky situation whether or not it's to save another firefighter or possibly themselves. Firefighters also realize that the inherent tension that goes with the job sometimes needs to be broken in order for learning to occur. It’s your job as an instructor to limit those disruptions and channel those disruptions so that you get the benefit without the negative by-product. This is done by setting some rules and setting the tone so that in the long run the focus is the training.   

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JOSEPH CEACorrespondent

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