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Summer: Ideal for Practicing Firefighting’s Basic Skills

Summer: Ideal for Practicing Firefighting’s Basic Skills

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

In many areas of the country, firefighters have to wait for warmer weather to conduct a good portion of their hands-on training and avoid extra injuries due to the cold. This isn’t to say that firefighters cannot train in the winter; they should definitely have a few drills to understand operations in a cold environment. However, trainees will be much more tolerant and productive if they are not suffering from hypothermia.

So now that warm summer weather is here, it is a good time to practice basic firefighting skills. While firefighters need to know a little about everything, many high-priority events, such as structure fires, are completed with the basic skills that they learned in recruit school.

These skills will be important throughout a firefighter’s career. Many Line of Duty Death (LODD) reports show that basic skills either contributed to a line of duty death or helped save a person from an LODD.

What Basic Skills Should Be Practiced?

Hopefully throughout the year, there should be a focus on learning tasks that make up basic firefighting skills, such as deploying a hose line, putting on a protective mask at the front door of a structure fire or starting a power saw to create ventilation. Warm weather also provide the opportunity to get used to other skills, such as pulling up in front of a structure, entering a burning structure and maneuvering a hose through obstacles.

After firefighters acquire enough proficiency, they can then focus on efficiency and time reduction. While hurrying and causing errors at a fire is a mark of inexperience, summertime offers crews the ability to practice and find more efficient ways of working.

For instance, a firefighter can walk in a certain pattern to ensure the hose lays out properly based on the distance from the pumper to the building or learn a way to arrange a breathing apparatus to allow the firefighter to use an air supply more quickly. Practicing these skills is the mark of a professional who believes in his or her craft and cares how his or her performance affects the crew and the public.

Learning how flow path science affects firefighting operations is also useful, because firefighters can use that knowledge to their advantage. Firefighters can learn behaviors that ensure they have a good 360-degree view of a structure, accurately read a building to understand where a fire is likely located and determine the best entry points, given the layout of the building. Practicing is essential to knowing the location of ventilation openings (even the ones created to enter the building), as well as whether or not they are limited or on a timer.

When I first became a firefighter, the firefighter took the nozzle to the front door and forced it open. I waited for the officer to return so that we could move into the building.

But the process is different now. Now we know that it’s best to have everything ready for hose movement, including the firefighters, prior to creating any opening.

Ideally, a ventilation team should be ready in a few seconds to provide ventilation that is coordinated with an attack crew’s extinguishment of the fire. If these types of basic skills are not practiced prior to an event, they may be forgotten during a fire.

Aside from a few larger cities that have fires frequently, a fire event is stressful and very overwhelming for the crews that first arrive on the scene. Firefighting personnel are trying to remember all of the parts of basic tasks that are needed to be successfully fight a fire.

Knowing the Location of Command Staff

Often, drills concerning basic skills are conducted in a vacuum. Crews go out, perform tasks and find ways to become proficient, but fireground commanders are absent.

However, it is important for fireground commanders to understand which crews are proficient and which are not, then set up their strategy and tactics based on this understanding. For instance, if the fireground commander assigns ventilation to a crew and does not understand the time that crew will need, he or she may miss the timing or choose an improper strategy.

The fireground commander must know how a fire is progressing and how this affects the time needed to complete tasks. Assigning a company to conduct a transitional attack with a 2.5-inch handline and expecting water to be on the fire in 10 seconds is unrealistic. What may be an offensive attack for an experienced, proficient crew could be a defensive fire for a new, inexperienced crew that is much slower at putting a hoseline in service.

The Importance of Safety Officers

Sometimes, I hear that safety officers are amazed that something happened or was performed in a certain way on the fireground. In this situation, it is likely not the first time that something risky was tried, and that risky behavior may have occurred at a prior training.

While speed and efficiency are great, performing a task poorly risks the safety of the firefighters performing it and that will not have a good ending. The parameters on a fireground are harsher than a training ground and that provide many opportunities for an unsafe practice to create injuries and stop or delay the task being performed. Safety officers should watch firefighters’ training and remind crews about unsafe practices; they can also serve as coaches, providing firefighters with the ability to learn safe practices.

An Operations or Fire Chief Observing Training Should Also Observe Training Sessions

An operations or fire chief needs to attend training sessions. Sometimes, we overhear complaints of a disconnect from the administration to the rank and file personnel, especially when policies are updated or when purchases inconsistent with firefighters’ needs are made.

If the fire chief only sees the cost of an item and does not understand its practical benefit, it is likely the disconnect will be there. However, when crews know that a fire chief has been there during training to observe a new procedure or equipment recommendation, it will go over better with subordinates if there is a difference of opinion.

A fire chief can also videotape basic skill training. This tactic is very valuable when it comes time for a fire chief to discuss an organization’s needs with elected officials who often do not understand what an expense means to a firefighting crew during an event. But if those officials see the difference between two, three and four persons on an apparatus – and the time differences of each scenario – they will understand how those expenses affect the community.

Summer is here! Be sure to get out and practice those basic skills. But at the same time, make sure your command staff is present.

Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.