Training to Fail
If you’ve read any of my other pieces you’ve undoubtedly heard me on my soapbox, I’ve repeated myself over and over again: “Train more!” I’ve said this so many times it's become my mantra, and pretty much everything I’ve ever written on here follows that simple theme, but there’s more to training than just checking boxes and going through the motions. I've preached about the benefits of training and the dangers of failing to train, but training to fail can be just as disastrous.
Training to fail is a complex topic, but it can be grossly simplified to mean any training that isn’t clear in its message, delivery or receipt. Because training to fail is ubiquitous, it's one of the biggest obstacles that the fire service faces. Even though it's not overtly listed in the NIOSH 5, if you read between the lines, you can see that it permeates all of them. Training to fail can cause numerous problems, including: apathy, scarring, creating confusion, perpetuating misinformation, reinforcing bad habits or improper techniques, and inspiring false confidence...which on the fireground will translate to limited situational awareness, poor performance, inappropriate decision-making…and ultimately, increased risks to shareholders and firefighters.
What the hell was that? It looks stupid and we can laugh when it's others doing this, but we do it every day, in a million different ways, and we don't think twice about it. Seriously, we do this too…a lot! Although in our defense, we don't realize it...but that's the problem, and that's why this happens daily in nearly every department. I know what you’re thinking…BS, we’ve never done that here. Alright, humor me for a minute, let’s see if this sounds familiar to anyone: was anyone taught the “what” and “how” of ventilation, but left confused as to the “when”, “where” and “why” of ventilation? If you don't believe me, spend five minutes on YouTube.
Not convinced, what if I told you that most of us are only required to study fire behavior for three hours…throughout our entire career! That’s setting us up for failure. Instead we spend our limited training time watching OSHA videos or refreshing ourselves on HR's flavor of the day. Learning fire behavior is vital to the fire service. Literally. It’s the fire service equivalent of studying our enemy. To paraphrase the great Tom Brennan, you can never learn enough about something that can kill you. I guarantee Peyton Manning has spent more than three hours dissecting the Seahawks defense!…today!...before noon!...and he’s not done yet!...and that’s for a football game!
I think the most obvious example of training to fail is 1403 burns. Calm down; hear me out. 1403 burns can be great training, but too often they aren’t. 1403 fires are fuel-limited and therefore limited in their scope (something that we repeatedly fail to adequately explain to the class). They’re unrealistic and a poor substitute for us, but the reality is that as of now, that’s what we’ve got. The limitations of 1403 burns are lengthy and well documented, and beyond the scope of this piece. Aaron Fields sums it up well, “we go into training burns for the fire, but on the fireground we go in for the people.” That last sentence may seem benign, but it is deeply telling of how pervasive this problem is. Hell, the reason that 1403 is written the way it is today, is because of our long history of training to fail. Meaning that it’s so restrictive because we've messed up too many times, and injured, and even killed brothers due to poor training.
“A little knowledge, in the wrong hands, is a dangerous thing!” – T. Brennan
There are infinite other examples of training to fail, but I’ll just list a handful that have been eating away at me lately:
Have you sat through the exact same class over, and over, and over again for more than a dozen years? Ever fallen asleep in class? Have you ever heard an instructor spout misinformation or demonstrate improper technique? Have you left a class and had a completely different take-away than the rest of your crew? Ever asked “why” in a class and gotten the response back, “’cause that’s how we do it here” or “because I said so”? Have you ever taught a subject that you weren’t comfortable or qualified to teach? I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I already know the answers to the above questions. But why are so many of us answering these questions the same? Again, there are numerous reasons why, so I'll just hit the Cliffs Notes of why we habitually train to fail:
· Time Constraints/Mismanagement
· Perceived “Safety”
· Poor Instructors
· Logistical Concerns