In 30 years of fire and rescue, I’ve met a lot of Instructors.  Some were inspiring, some were depressing, and some were… just… there.

In the depressing classes, it was obvious early on that the Instructor didn’t understand the material, didn’t really care about the subject, and / or seemed to have few concerns about anything other that the clock.

The “just there” classes were Instructors who were competent but dispassionate.  This makes for a class where you can learn something, but only if you catch it as it blows by – if is has to be repeated, then there will be dramatic pauses engineered to make you feel stupid, and after a couple of episodes there will be no more questions.

But the inspiring classes were where the Instructor cared about the subject and about the students learning the subject – not just so they could pass the test, but so they could add to their toolbox new techniques that could be used to save them or someone else.

Although it’s not always the case, people should be attending your class because they want to learn.  When they’re not there to learn, it’s usually because they think they know it all, or because a Chief or Training Officer told them they’re behind on training hours.

Two of the above Instructor types won’t care – they have enough people to get paid for the class, and they have a PowerPoint presentation that no one can dispute covers the material that is on the test.

However, a good instructor knows a simple truth that evades a lot of firefighters and teachers: The penalty for having the wrong answer on the fire ground can be a lot more painful than a red “X” on a piece of paper.  Reality is that if you teach a PPE class and a week later one of your students gets burned, you share in the blame.  You either did not cover the subject matter in detail or you failed to impress upon the individual the critical nature of the subject matter.  Every detail in your instruction, from a clove hitch on a ladder to Ventilation or Forcible Entry, needs to be presented with a focus on why it is needed – else people will often dismiss it as an unimportant detail.

A passionate Instructor also draws in the student who is ambivalent about the material, because he wonders why this is so important to you.  It’s all important, and it’s your job to make sure they understand the importance.

If you study most disasters (on or off the fire ground) you quickly realize that it’s rarely a single failure or mistake that results in catastrophe – it’s a series of mistakes made in a specific order that build on each other toward the end.  An officer derides SCBA retention in the truck crew compartment because he survived for 20 years without it – his team follows his lead.  The engine is being driven recklessly to a fire because the EVD Instructor thinks the department guidelines on response were written by a bunch of pansies and communicated that quite clearly to his students.  A red light is run and an emergency evasion results in a rollover that ends with a firefighter catching a SCBA bottle in the face.  If any one of these mistakes had not been made, your entire crew would have made it home from that call.  Instead, there’s a hospital call and recriminations from people who a day ago were ambivalent about every screw-up except the last one.

As an Instructor, you walk a fine line:  You want your students to be confident but not cocky; aggressive but not reckless; ready to lead but willing to follow.  I’ve never been impressed much by the “you guys are nothing compared to the firefighters of my generation” attitude, whether it comes from the grizzled veteran or the newly minted rookie.  Fact is, even with all of the knowledge, the advanced equipment, and the increased oversight and media exposure, we still kill a hundred firefighters a year.  We routinely ignore Chief Brunacini’s advice to make new mistakes; we still let testosterone overrule logic in our decision making; and we still refuse to let the ones our actions will leave behind penetrate the thought process.

If you are a passionate Instructor (fact is, if you aren’t you wouldn’t be reading this), then LODD reports should make you both sad and angry: sad for the loss of a comrade and the pain of his or her family, and anger at the fact that so many of our deaths could be avoided.

Remember that the best mechanic seldom has every tool – but he does have every tool he needs.  Your job is to make sure that your firefighters have a toolbox that contains one or more solutions for every problem he will face.  You will fail in your job because no one is clairvoyant, but if you’re really good he’s got a versatile-enough set of tools that he can figure out how to adapt one to do the job.

Think outside the box: an engineer looks at a truck stuck under a bridge and starts figuring out how to stabilize and lift the bridge when all he really needs to do is pull the valve stems on the truck.  Better yet, teach your people to think outside the box, because the higher the number of good solutions you have to a problem, the better the odds that you’ll pick a really good one.

“When somebody screws up, the first question should be: ‘Who taught him how to do this?’” – Bruno

Luke Steele

Captain, REDS