How to Become a Better Training Chief
The position of training chief is a unique one. It’s part administration, yet you’re still involved in the hands-on stuff because… well… that’s how you train firefighters. There are live burns in the morning and a data spreadsheet in the afternoon to keep up with who needs recertification in what. Somewhere in there, you have to either justify your budget or put something together to implement a new training program or endeavor. Meanwhile, you’re organizing your own training schedule so that you’re current in all the required courses to legally do your job. You have to be a leader with a diplomatic touch in the office, but on the training grounds you may have to summon the drill sergeant.
In short, it’s no easy task, and it’s not for everyone.
If you’re new to the job — whether you’ve transferred from another FD or made a move within your own organization — it can be overwhelming. Since you’re the training officer, administratively speaking, you have to hit the ground running. Personnel still have questions and needs as their lives haven’t stopped just so you can acclimate to the job. Training classes and courses can’t just be put on hold while you figure out how to decorate the new office.
Here are a couple-few suggestions that may make your time at the new post a little easier for both the long and short term.
KNOW YOUR ROLE
Fire departments have changed quite a bit over the years — as they should. Innovation, politics, and social movements have made the fire service a much different agency than it was in the days of our grandparents. So one of the first tasks you should do is to arrive at a thorough understanding of precisely what your job is. Yes, training chief means you run the academy and stay on top of making sure all the personnel are qualified to do the job, but for all you know, budget cuts from another administration may have folded something else under the umbrella of “training” and you’ll be heading up those responsibilities as well.
Talk to the chief to gauge their attitude about training and how they feel is the best way to get the job done. Do they throw money at the problem? Is there money to throw? Get on the same page so nobody is surprised by separate agendas.
Become an expert in the nuts and bolts of the job. Just because you’re leading the department doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t get your hands dirty every now and then. For example, the general manager of a high-volume, high-pressure car dealership, may earn the respect of his sales force by occasionally stepping onto the sales floor and working a deal for himself. Proving that “the old man” can still do it cuts down on a lot of questioning and attitude when delegating or directing. Teach a course or two and do it well.
Still, your job is to help the personnel become and remain qualified. It’s good to know what they need and how it’s available to them, whether it’s ongoing EMS training or a new fire ground ops course that the NFPA has recommended.
EMBRACE THE NEW
Data is everything now. Even baseball incorporates high-level analytics in both scouting and strategy, and that’s a notoriously stubborn sport when it comes to its traditions. Identify your “geeks” and encourage their… behavior. While data collection, organization, and dissemination of results may not be the ideal skill set for putting out a two-story fire, you’ll find it’s priceless in your department if you can prove to the higher chiefs why you need what you need and prove to your students why they should learn what you’re teaching.
Embracing the technological and digital advantages of the 21st century can also make your job easier in the form of online classes and certifications. Quite a bit of training is in the classroom, and if online courses are available for personnel to absorb on their own time, then that only makes a happier student and frees up you and your staff for other tasks.
In the end, understanding data and how to effectively deploy it just means that you know your job. If you were, for example, to propose a new initiative without charts and graphs and all those things that make people look smart, then… you don’t look very smart.
HAVE A DRINK
Not at the office, obviously (though you sometimes may need one). But the point here is to network. Get to know the people in other divisions in your fire department. Connections are always a good thing, even if it’s just knowing who has the seedy reputations. Productive inter-divisional relationships can assist you in all sorts of ways. This seems pretty obvious.
What may not be obvious is reaching out to the community. Especially if you’re a volunteer department, the local residential and business communities can be very generous. Need a house for a live burn? Public works or housing officials may be able to help you out. Get to know the local car dealers; if they trade-in an old beater or newer model with a salvage title, it just might be worth it for them to donate the car for extrication training and take the tax write-off rather than bring the car to auction. They’ll want the publicity, anyway. Local restaurants may be willing to donate meals for all-day training exercises. The possibilities are not quite endless, but there are a lot.
BE GOOD. BE TOUGH.
The final point we want to make here is to grow that thick, reptilian skin while still developing that warm, reassuring persona.
Take care of your staff. The first thing you need to do is know who needs what. Some people don’t respond or aren’t motivated by nag-fests or pats on the back. Others crave recognition-by-ceremony. Figure out who needs what and they’ll notice. They’ll also appreciate that you made the effort. And remember that people make mistakes and have bad days (or weeks). You will too. Everyone appreciates a little understanding.
At the same time, be ready for the fire and backlash. Remember that you cannot make everyone happy, no matter what you do. You can’t always get rid of those who question you or your methods, so you need to take criticism on the chin and keep pushing forward. Be the better, more mature person and encourage them regardless. Stay above the petty office politics.
Any fire department worth its salt takes training very, very seriously. If you’re in that post, then it’s an honor, and you’ve been found very capable. Don’t screw it up.