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What’s More Important: Credentials or Experience? Link by Ed Raposo

What best prepares a firefighter for the job? Classroom lectures? Experience through on-the-job training? Both? Neither? Each option has its proponents and its opponents. There have been discussions (and at times, heated debates) about experience versus credentials at firehouse kitchen tables all over the country for years.

What we are really talking about is training. What training method works best? What training method works best for you? Before you answer, think about the last time you learned something. For decades, people have been studying the ways, the means, and the methods that we humans learn “stuff”. After all this research, they came up with a blinding flash of the obvious: It depends.

In this “Kitchen Table Debrief” I will talk about the various methods we use to learn new things, and how we can best ensure our organizations implement the principles and methods to help everyone continue to learn and grow.

Credentials versus Experience

This subject was the topic of a FIRELINK forum I participated in a couple of years ago, however, it is still just as relevant today.

According to studies done on how human’s best learn, there are four principles that should be implemented for the best learning experience: Thinking, Watching, Doing, and Feeling. Think of spokes on a wheel. The more spokes that are used, the smoother the ride becomes. Think of these principles as those spokes on a wheel. The more of these principles that are used, the smoother the training becomes.

Not every learning experience requires each of these training principles, but the fastest and most thorough learning comes from applying all of these principles.

This is not rocket science. Let’s take a couple of basic firefighter skills; the placement of ground ladders and tying a figure of eight on a bight knot.

Try to remember back when you first learned these skills. Someone probably told you the benefit of placing ground ladders. They did this because someone in the crowd probably asked, “Why do we need to know this?” Then, the instructor explained about placing, extending, and footing the ladder. He or she explained the correct way to determine if the angle of pitch is correct or not, and where to place the top of the ladder for easiest access to use as egress or rescue. Then, they showed you how to place the ladder. Next you tried it, and received feedback on how you did it.

It was probably the same with the knots. Maybe the technique was shown to you first, and then you tried it yourself. Maybe you got it wrong, and you were corrected, or maybe you got it right from the get-go and received kudos. At some point, you were probably told why you need that particular knot, and what would be the best application of it.

In both these examples, the four training principles were used. The thinking part; having the theory of ground ladder placement explained and the appropriate use of the knot, the watching part; having the proper technique performed for you to observe, the doing part; you actually perform the skill under the observation of a mentor, and finally the feeling part; receiving feedback to either encourage or correct your technique.

Guess what: you don’t ALWAYS go through all four principles. But to truly learn a new skill; for the best learning experience, you should go through more than one of these principles. The order of the steps doesn’t matter, usually.

Can you learn ladder placement just by observing? Yes, but you will undoubtedly feel better about your mastery of the skill if you have done it yourself, and received feedback on how you did. Understanding the WHY of a new skill is also critical to retaining the steps. If you learn why something is done a particular way, you are more inclined to recall the proper steps.

Does receiving a certificate for your new skill make you better at throwing up a ladder at the next structure fire? Obviously, the answer is “no.”

There is a difference between being trained and being certified, though. Being certified usually includes meeting some performance criteria to show proficiency. Depending on how much someone applies himself/herself, this could be a BIG difference.

At my Firehouse, 30 years ago (a little before my time), if we were toned out for a medical call, two members would grab the rescue (we call it the rescue, some communities call it the ambulance, rig, bus, etc) and respond to the call even if neither one was an EMT. The mentality was the same as in the pre-EMT days – at least you would get the victim to the hospital.

Clearly, the “Train as You Go” method is no longer acceptable anywhere in the country, for medical calls. So how is it that some communities think nothing of allowing untrained, firefighters to gear up and march into a burning structure? It boggles the mind… Certification programs are great. Every member should be encouraged to complete NFPA 1001 Firefighter Level I and Level II. Those are two very good credentials to obtain. However, getting both of those certifications does not, in and of itself, guarantee a successful evolution on the fire ground. Even if live burns are part of the certification, there is a big difference between burning bales of hay in a concrete and steel building, and Joe’s condo on fire (room and contents) down the street.

In my own career I have come across some fantastic firefighters who never received their Firefighter Level I or Level II certification, but could easily teach advanced courses on fire behavior and fire control. Are these individuals less qualified than someone with the certificates? Of course not.

Don’t get me wrong; I am all for certified training and seminars. In my opinion, we owe it to ourselves to keep abreast of the latest trends, and discoveries in this profession. Education is one of our strongest and most flexible tools. But even in communities where the access to these types of training and seminars is limited because of distance, dollars, or opportunities, EXCELLENT training programs can be put together by a couple of highly motivated fire officers or firefighters and delivered right in your own firehouse. You don’t need a certificate to prove you know something! Let your actions speak!! Every department should have at least a three-tiered training program. We call ours the “Training Roadmap”. We have training for our under-aged, junior firefighter program. We also have training for members split up into: Bootcamp (new firefighter orientation), Basics (basic firefighter competencies), and Beyond the Basics (tips, strategies and theories).

There are lots of monthly magazines and websites available for you to use when developing your training programs. Some of these cost you nothing but the time to research them. There is no – zero – zip – zilch reason why Fire Departments today allow members to stay on the active list without being trained.

There is tremendous value for your department in sending people to training. The National Fire Academy in Emmetsburg, Maryland, offers the “NFA State Weekend” Program, which is free training, room, and board Friday through Sunday for the cost of a registration fee (I think it’s $75 a person).

You just have to get your people to the Academy and they will receive world-class training (and certificates, if that’s your motivation) plus the chance to meet firefighters from different parts of your State as well as at least one other State during the training. The instructors are seasoned professionals teaching state-of-the-art fire ground theories and techniques.

Do we need State-mandated levels of training? I don’t think so. What we need is a commitment from each and every one of us to stop fighting fires by the seat of our pants, and research and learn the proper methods, tools, strategies and tactics to fight fires.

As previously stated: It is not important if the person beside me is board certified and has a wall full of certificates from all the classes they have attended or not. I want the person beside me to know when to use a fog stream and when to use a straight stream, when to ladder a building, how to vent a roof, how to search a residence and how to search a commercial structure. I want them to know when to pull the inch-and-three-quarter line and when to pull the deuce-and-a-half. I want my officers to know when it is worth the risk to make entry and when to order everyone out and switch to a defensive attack. When to put a stop to 15 separate individuals failing to put out a fire, and switch it to one team of 15 being successful.

If a certificate helps to do that, then boy, go get it! If it’s hands-on training, then go get that, instead! Notice I didn’t mention career or volunteer? Doesn’t seem to matter for the issues I list above, does it?

Every community has a Public Protection Classification (PPC) assigned to it. This is a measure, on a scale of 1 to 10, of the fire protection capability of the local fire department to respond to structure fires in the community. Class 1 represents the best public protection, and Class 10 indicates no recognized protection.

The insurance organization, (ISO) collects information via inspection, on a community’s public fire protection capabilities and analyzes the data using a Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS). They then assign a PPC rating (also known as the ISO rating). Homeowner and commercial insurance rates are then calculated using this value.

If you are concerned about your ISO rating (and as a responsible officer, you should be!), you want to make sure some level of formal training takes place and gets documented. ISO documentation (FSRS) specifies all the items considered during an ISO audit.

You have to do a little digging to find training (which shows up as a sub-category of FIRE DEPARTMENT), the criteria include sub-sub categories for: FACILITIES, AIDS, and USE. There, the category is broken down further into training facilities you use, drills (including mutual aid drills) and training. Finally, training is listed as Company Training, Classes for Officers, Driver and Operator Training, NEW Driver and Operator Training, Training on Hazardous Materials, and Recruit Training.

That is how the number is calculated for Training. The Training number is one of eight different numbers that gets added together for the overall “Credit for Fire Department” number (CFD). That number is then combined with Credit for Fire Alarm (CFA) and Credit for Water Supply (CWS) through various calculations and a final Public Protection Classification (PPC) number is issued to your City/Town/District. Your insurance rating is based on this final number ranging 1 to 10.

This is how I understand it to be, but I could be wrong. I attended training on the ISO process a couple of years ago (and I received a certificate!) but things might have changed. The big lesson there was to KEEP YOUR PAPERWORK CURRENT AND FILED OUT!!

From my interpretation of the point schedule, ALL members must reach the training criteria, so for paid departments, this is handled by performing training between station duties and calls. For volunteer departments, we need to have a new classification for “active” members (those who still train and respond to calls) and “social” members (those who attend functions and meetings, but no longer go to calls).

Look at this as a serious business, because it IS a serious business.

Whether you have a wall full of “official” certificates or have been trained by an in-house training organization, doesn’t matter as long as the classes are conducted properly. Training programs lower your ISO rating so your tax payers pay less insurance. I do know for a fact that a part of your overall Fire Department rating is based on the number of hours you spend training. Period.

If you do not have a training officer for your department, get one. Ideally, they will get their Fire Instructor I or II training (NFPA 1041), so they learn how to put together training programs and lesson plans. If you are not drilling at least once a week, start!

I come from a rural community and I am a volunteer, too. There is NO excuse for not training, drilling, and practicing your firefighting skills! No money is no excuse! If even ONE person gets “Fire Engineering” magazine, “Fire Rescue” magazine, “Firehouse” magazine, or any number of other resources, you can put together a training program.

There are even free online where you can get ideas for drills. Conclusion: I am a fan of credentials. You should be, too. You should be concerned that the folders of your members be full of their achievements and certificates, especially if you are interested in seeing them advance.

I think if you attend a training session, you should get a certificate. I have a folder full of them, but I also know they are nothing more than a testimony that I kept a seat warm during the lesson. They do not speak to my capabilities. I let my behavior on the fire ground profess my capabilities.

It is important to me that members of my team know what to do. Whether they learned that skill by experience or in a classroom.

What is more important, credentials or experience? This is the wrong question. I think the more important question is: Did you learn your skills enough to perform them or not? It is not important HOW you learned, but it is important THAT you learned. Thank you for giving me your attention! Stay Low and Keep Checking Under the Smoke! Chief Ed Raposo, (Ret.)

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