Although I realize that nearly everyone who works in fire and rescue can provide compelling evidence that dummies actually do breathe, for the sake of this article we’re talking about non-breathing human likenesses, usually made of plastic. Specifically, training dummies, more specifically the advantages and disadvantages of using dummies in place of live victims for training.

There are many advantages to using dummies: they don’t complain about being dumped in the woods and left for hours, being laced in baskets too tight or carried improperly, and they won’t file sexual harassment complaints against the rookie trying to figure out how to tie a waist harness.  However, the compelling bean-counter reason to use them in place of human victims is to avoid the risk of injury and the almost certain liability issues that follow.

Anyone with even a passing interest in safety can come up with examples where training using live “victims” went terribly wrong – the case in New York where a Deputy Chief went to jail is often used as an example.  However for most fire and rescue professionals, the specter of knowing that you are responsible for a personnel death or injury far outweighs the fear of financial or criminal recriminations.

However, that’s one of the biggest downsides to using dummies for training: As an Instructor, you can’t help but notice that when Rescue Randy in in the basket the whole approach to the evolution sometimes changes.  Unless the Instructor is willing to lose his temper, many times the attention to detail and the care taken in managing the patient will degrade – not to mention that the pace of the “rescue” often slows down.

The times are changing – I remember a college many years ago where we did confined space rescue on the second story of a burn building while another team did live fire attack on the ground floor.  IDLH atmosphere, high heat, and no visibility were shrugged off by the Instructor, who noted that real life might one day be even less kind.  The thing I remember most is that “victims” had to go hide and wait to be found in that environment, and anyone who had already played patient had a visible focus on solving the next problem quickly.

The reality is that it’s almost impossible to make training like the real thing – the adrenaline, the conditions, and the knowledge that a misstep or an overlooked bit of information could lead to death or injury results in a different focus and intensity.  The best an Instructor can do is overload people to the point where they start experiencing stress, or put people in competitive situations to try and make them focus.

Most of all, you have to create urgency: Keep noting the time, keep referring to the decreased LOC of the “victim”, keep asking people if they would respond in the same manner if it was their neighbor.  When people get in a hurry and don’t have training to instinctively fall back on, they start making mistakes.

Some of the best classes I’ve taken are when the Instructor manages to make me angry enough that I forget where I am – these are the ones where I look back later with a resolve to do it different next time. My best example is a Structural Collapse class in Charlotte – the Instructor wanted me to add another mechanical advantage system to an A-Frame that already had a 3:1 MA attached.  Since the A-Frame also provides MA and the load was only a ton, I disagreed (pointless endeavor).  In the end, I rigged a 4:1 piggyback faster than I ever have.

Training with Dummies is here to stay – but the Instructor who lets the pace of the evolution falter or who ignores bad technique because the “patient” can’t feel the pain of, say, a rope whipped across the face, is doing a disservice to both his students and the future live victims that they will inevitably care for.

Fire and Rescue is the ultimate Customer Service job.  If you treat your customers like dummies, you need to understand that nobody can recognize a poser faster than someone who just put their life in the hands of a stranger.