Sunday, June 8, 2014

Successful Training Depends on Practice and Trust

Firefighter survival and Mayday training have saturated the training circuit over the past few years. These important foundational skills have no doubt increased our awareness of the perils of the fireground. In the days following these or other drills, the average firefighter's skill level in these areas is elevated, his awareness is heightened, and the path to skill mastery is in sight. But as weeks and months pass without incident, complacency creeps in, and the path becomes overgrown. Skills and attentiveness are pushed to the farthermost recesses of the mind. In these times of doing more with less (and things are only getting worse), it is imperative that we maintain readiness at the individual and company levels to ensure combat effectiveness.
What happens if we do not practice these skills regularly to maintain a sharp edge? How often does your crew practice the firefighter survival basics or calling the Mayday? We all know we are responding to fewer and fewer fires; this just means we must train more often. On-the-job training through responding to a lot of fire calls simply doesn't happen anymore.
The classroom and the drill ground serve essentially the same purposes: providing explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition. Skill maintenance involves revisiting critical basics with regularity to ensure the proper response when needed. Thus, we are prepared to function when anxious, confused, or fatigued.


To almost anyone reading this article, the levels of learning or mastery are academic. Those who regularly teach are well schooled in the levels of learning and the learning domains—cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills.
Let's review the levels of learning.
Unconscious incompetence is the lowest level of mastery. People aren't good at something, don't even know it, and won't admit it. To improve a member's task performance, he must first admit that he needs experience and practice.
Conscious incompetence is a level at which one is convinced he is an expert at a task when he is not. The instructor must make the student aware of his limitations and educate him on the subject.
Conscious competence is the level at which the person has the ability to do the right thing but has to think about it.
Unconscious competence is the highest level of mastery. As Bruce Lee put it, "Learn it until you forget it."
The scope of our profession has become incredibly vast—30 years of mission creep has left the fire service with a serious identity crisis. As a result, most of us operate in the unconscious incompetence realm.
If we're good, we move to the conscious incompetence region—making us a little safer—because we're smart enough to recognize that we don't know something.
If we're really good, we operate in the conscious competence realm. Those of us who work hard at our craft can perform most skills competently, although we must rifle through our memories to retrieve the correct action.
I would hazard to say that I don't know (you don't, either) anyone who has achieved unconscious competence, a sort of Zen mastery, in our profession. I wish I did; I'd join his crew and try to figure out what his secret is.
I have never gotten good at anything by not doing it. I'm the type of person who has to practice a skill over and over again to get it right. Once I do get it, I still have to practice tirelessly to make sure I stay sharp. It's exhausting. I am extremely envious (and rather skeptical) of anyone who can observe a skill once and believes he has mastered it. I want to know the secret, too.
Our ability to retain information and apply it to the correct situation is directly related to how far we are willing take ourselves on the path to mastery. According to the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, learning retention depends on how learning is imparted and what, if any, learning reinforcement occurs thereafter: lecture, five percent; reading, 10 percent; audiovisual, 20 percent; demonstration, 30 percent; group discussion, 50 percent; physical practice, 75 percent; and teaching others, 90 percent. Most fire department training ceases at the 75-percent level, practice by doing, and progresses no further.
We cannot wander through our career blissfully unaware of the hazards associated with our profession. We must maintain superior skills and study accident reports assiduously to avoid missteps. We must know with certainty our limitations and those of our equipment in any given situation.


If you want to challenge yourself and your crew, conduct a "flash drill." Assemble personnel on the apparatus floor, in full turnout gear, and in a timed drill have them don their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Once they are sufficiently frustrated with you (because it is either too easy for them or they look like they are trying to fight off a rapacious spider monkey clinging to their back), ask them what their Mayday parameters are, and have them call a Mayday.
We have implemented some of this "flash" training with some of our probationary firefighters. We conducted Mayday training for our folks about two years ago and have subsequently trained about 10 probies in the intervening months. At six months' to a year's time, the training seems to disappear, even after we tell them to practice calling a Mayday every time they check their SCBA.
It's called complacency—the nastiest word in our profession.
Ask 10 probies to call a Mayday a year after the training, and eight out of 10 will have the same reaction.
They roll back their eyes, tilt their heads, and purse their lips in thought. The first words will not be "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday" but rather "Oh, damn!" or "Umm ...."
Mayday and survival training is a form of stress inoculation training (SIT) designed to create emotional responses to stressful situations to achieve a desired response. These emotional bookmarks can become less vivid in our mind's eye if we do not revisit these stressful training situations regularly—as is true with any skill.
Ron Avery is a law enforcement trainer and a world-class competitive pistol shooter. He pushes the envelope in terms of stress-related training through "stress acclimatization." Your prior successes under stressful circumstances acclimatize you to similar situations and promote future success. Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's book, On Combat, he describes the process this way:
With proper training and the requisite conditioning and practice, we can achieve skills thought by others to be impossible. There is a whole realm of possibilities we can teach and train (personnel) to perform. Stress acclimatization is about measuring precise doses of stress followed by waves of recovery and then repeating these cycles very specifically. There must be time for adaptation to take place and there must be enough training, repeated over time, to help it stick.
Without regular practice, skills are dulled and reactions to the stressor become sluggish. The firefighter involved in combat with a tenacious, relentless enemy cannot afford slow reflexes.


University of Pennsylvania researchers found mindfulness training, or MT, correlates with managing emotions and maintaining working memory. Mindfulness is a balancing act, the ability to be conscious and alert in the moment—i.e., having situation awareness—while maintaining emotional control.
Demanding training in military Special Forces involves months of food and sleep deprivation. In the months prior to a deployment, service members receive exhaustive training on mission-critical tactical skills, physical training, and SIT to orient them to stressors they may experience during their approaching mission. They also must psychologically prepare to leave loved ones and face potentially violent and unpredictable situations during their deployment. Misery in training has value—after this stressful training, regular life seems easy in comparison.
Constant and rigorous demands like those experienced during high-stress events have been shown to reduce working memory capacity and lead to cognitive failures during fast-moving events. Simply put, when we are scared out of our minds, we lose the ability to think logically. Working memory has a limited capacity and can be easily overwhelmed when subjected to a high amount of stress. Our emotional reaction can overwhelm working memory and will make it difficult to perform simple skills that have not been refined to the point of muscle memory.
Building up a tolerance to stress with SIT may help anyone who must maintain optimum performance during extremely stressful circumstances. A major part of what makes SIT successful is that it elevates the student's confidence and takes some of the surprise out of combat. SIT may have cross-over benefits in that training for stressful situations in one discipline may improve performance under stress in other disciplines.
Preparing firefighters for life-and-death situations is our ultimate responsibility in training. The solution to lapses in memory concerning survival training is repeated stressful, challenging evolutions that include preparation for the possibility of being trapped or injured in a structure fire.


In his book On Combat, Grossman describes SIT training principles.
Never "kill" a firefighter in training. Often, training exercises involve trainees being "killed" when they make a move that is inconsistent with the desired training. Teaching students to die sends the wrong message. Instructors should never "pronounce" students on the training ground. We need to teach firefighters to live, not to die. We need to train ourselves to never give up and train our fellow firefighters to be equally tenacious in defense of their lives.
Giving firefighters the experience of losing in a scenario actually begins to condition a risk aversion pathway in the brain. They may actually stop fighting when presented with a similar situation in the real world, just as they were conditioned to perform in training.
Teach students that if they are trapped, they must follow their Mayday procedures and seek safety. If we are taught to stop fighting when confronted with a survival situation, we are programming ourselves to roll over and die when the real situation arises. Giving students the possibility of success in extremely challenging situations inspires "learned resourcefulness" as opposed to "learned helplessness." We must continue to fight. The fire may take our life because sometimes the objective hazard is simply too great, but we must never give it willingly.
Don't let anyone leave the training site a loser. The job of the trainer is to design evolutions that are challenging but not impossible to complete successfully. Designing evolutions that have no possibility for success and are beyond the aptitude of the students, thus making them feel stupid, gives the trainer (in this case, a megalomaniac) a sick form of gratification. Just as we should never "kill" a student in training, we must never "kill" his will to learn.
Standing over a trainee with your arms folded, shaking your head disapprovingly as he struggles to grasp a concept, only proves that the trainer hungers for others to fail so that person can assert his knowledge and authority. In no uncertain terms, this is bullying, which leads to resentment and inhibits the creation of a positive learning environment. If you want to lose your audience immediately, act like a pretentious know-it-all on the drill ground.
Students must be allowed to make mistakes in training. Doers make mistakes. If a trainee fails to perform an evolution correctly on the first attempt, train that person on the desired behavior. Allow him an opportunity to perform the skill correctly. In doing so, you expose a weakness in the trainee's game and then give him the opportunity to correct it, making that trainee a stronger fireground performer.
Never talk trash about your students. A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment. Cultivating trust in the training environment is a must if we seek an elite level of performance.
Trust in the instructor and faith in the training mission allow trainees to stretch themselves, to go to places outside their established comfort zones. The result is trainees who seek greater depths of knowledge because they feel comfortable trying new things. If they are free to ask questions, they are better able to maintain a beginner's mind, where possibilities are many, as opposed to someone who thinks himself an expert, closing his mind to different points of view, where the possibilities are few. Trust allows the instructor to take the students to places they wouldn't ordinarily go.
The old axiom applies here, "Praise in public, criticize in private." If the proper training environment is created, people will no longer avoid training. When the word gets out about all of the positive experiences people have had during training you have sponsored, people will want to be a part of it.
Report successful operations to everyone—celebrate success. Celebrating success is a key element in the survival mindset. Report failures up the chain of command to ensure that proper follow-up training is administered.
Creating an environment that inspires thought, involves everyone, and makes them want to train is paramount to maintaining good faith in training. Do not "kill" students. Do not allow failure and bullying to take over your training ground.


It is acceptable to have a bad day, but it is unacceptable for bad days to become habit. It is unacceptable not to train and exercise all resources at your disposal to improve performance and ensure that a bad habit does not show itself at the moment of truth.
We must develop good habits and continually put them into practice on each response. Initiate every response from an aggressive standpoint. The word "aggressive" may disturb some people, but it's not about the current safety-vs.-attack culture clash. It's about aggressively employing tactics and strategy on every response—wearing appropriate personal protective equipment; using the correct incident command system or fire command terminology; and, if you really want to step up your game, performing a tool drop that is appropriate for the structure. We must aggressively assert our knowledge, skills, and abilities at every opportunity. It makes good sense.
Accomplishing these skills repeatedly reinforces the correct behavior when the bullets are flying for real. We become the things we do. Your crew members will not rise to the level of combat. They will sink to the level of their training.
Elite performers are not immune from bad days. They are creatures of habit; they rise to an elite level with God-given talent but also through hard work and a dogged determination toward a goal. They become what they repeatedly do.
Think of your favorite professional athlete. I'm sure you can recall a time when he looked as though the other players were two steps ahead of him. What separates elite performers from the rest of us is their ability to recognize their shortcomings, recover quickly, and adapt to what their opponent throws at them. They emerge from their bad day better and stronger.


The drive for excitement and the accompanying emotional payoff may lead us at times to exceed an acceptable level of threat and assume undue risk. When we are rewarded with a rush of emotions after successfully completing a dangerous fireground task, we bookmark the experience as positive. We continually seek the emotional reward brought on by previous successes—while increasing risk taking—and might miss important cues about the constantly changing environment.
Organizations cannot train for unimagined, highly dangerous, never-before-seen situations. If we continually study accident reports, learn from them, and participate repeatedly in stressful, scenario-based training, we are less likely to be surprised. Also quoted in On Combat, Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, said the following regarding preparation:
I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything about my equipment, and kept me respectful of my machine and always alert.
Recognizing fireground accident triggers is key. Removing a link from the error sequence can prevent tragedy. We must know these fireground triggers—accidents are often the culmination of many common events that align in unexpected ways leading to hostile events. It means we must pay attention—all the time. The fireground will punish inattention absolutely. We are not often afforded a second chance when dealing with Mother Nature; she likes to strip the unwary of their arrogance. The fireground will not adapt to us; we must adapt to it.
The attitude that the fireground is something contrived, almost too familiar, is an extremely dangerous one. To help bad days from developing into bad habits, keep these common accident factors in mind.
Common human factors that contribute to accidents include the following:
  • Inadequate or impaired communications.
  • Unclear direction from incident command.
  • Repeatedly attempting to achieve unattainable goals.
  • Failure to recognize rapid fire growth potential.
Interior operations warning signs. Keep an eye out for the following fireground situations, and be prepared to take the appropriate measures:
  • Active working fire, delayed entry, or loss of "time recognition" by crews or the incident commander (IC).
  • Multiple companies assigned to enter through one entry point.
  • Roof division companies retreating from the roof as crews are preparing to go inside.
  • Air is rapidly drawn in zero visibility and heat is banking down.
  • Interior crews can hear but not see the fire burning above them.
  • Interior crews are working under a mezzanine.
  • Crews feel "uncomfortable" with the situation they are in.
  • A crew member's SCBA low-air alarm activates and the crew continues searching for the seat of the fire.
  • Interior crews flow water for several minutes but make no progress on the fire.
  • Interior crews hear the sound of roof ventilation operations conducted behind them.
  • Crews are unable to communicate with the IC or division/group supervisors.
  • A crew or crew member is in trouble and fails to recognize it.
  • An "Emergency Traffic" call is delayed or not initiated.
  • Crews are deep inside a commercial building with 1¾-inch lines instead of 2½-inch lines.
  • Prior to building entry, fireground companies and the IC fail to recognize basic construction features that should influence decisions and actions.
  • Crews and ICs do not follow the "order model" for communications, or they use unclear terms and send mixed messages.
  • Company officers are not monitoring the air supply status of their crews and are not practicing proper air-management techniques.
  • All members operating on the fireground fail to evaluate and apply the risk management philosophy to their assignment.
As stated earlier, without continued practice and visualization, training can disappear from our memory center. We must take classroom concepts and practice them religiously so that they become muscle memory.


Serious study of entrapment situations, rehearsing your response, calling the Mayday, emergency SCBA profile maneuvers, and knowing where important tools are located in your pockets prior to the emergency will aid in keeping you prepared for survival events.
Situations that warrant an immediate Mayday transmission include, but are not limited to, the following: falling through a floor or the roof, separation from a partner or crew, low-air alarm activation, entanglement in wires, or entrapment from a collapse or the fire.
Use the FACT acronym to identify a Mayday situation.
  • Fall: through a floor, a roof, a ceiling, or something falls on you.
  • Air: experience an SCBA malfunction or other air emergency.
  • Caught: entangled or otherwise stuck.
  • Trapped: by fire, collapse, or disorientation.
    Use the NUCAN acronym to report a Mayday.
  • Name: Identify yourself.
  • Unit: Provide unit designator and location.
  • Conditions: Describe your situation/condition and fire conditions or entrapment level.
  • Actions/Air: Explain actions taken and air remaining.
  • Needs: Identify what you need for your rescue.


    Individuals and crews can practice calling the Mayday using the following scenarios.
    Scenario 1. You are assigned to Engine 1, fire attack. You and your partner enter a single-family dwelling using the A side door. The floor collapses, sending you into the basement. You cannot locate your partner, and you are pinned under debris. Three-quarters of your air remains.
    Scenario 2. You and your partner from Engine 2 are backing up fire attack on the primary hoseline when you lose voice contact with your partner and lose contact with the hoseline. You are in a large commercial building, approximately 200 feet inside. You attempt to find the hoseline several times without success, and your low-air alarm has activated.
    Scenario 3. You are assigned to Truck 1, primary search. You and a partner enter a two-story single-family dwelling by an A side door, ascend the stairs, and begin primary search operations on the second floor. During the search, the ceiling collapses, dropping wires on your partner, entangling him. You attempt to free your partner but succeed only in entangling him further. Fire and heat conditions are getting worse. You are both running low on air; neither of you has wire cutters in your turnouts. You both have just above one-quarter of your air remaining.
    Scenario 4. You are assigned to Engine 3 and are performing a search with a partner in a single-family dwelling when the roof collapses on you and your partner. You entered on the B side of the house through an exterior window. You are uninjured and mobile, but your partner is unconscious and pinned. You are cut off from your primary exit, and the fire is advancing on you. You have half of your air remaining.
    Have personnel read each scenario, one at a time, to give them an idea of their situation. For each scenario, they must use the FACT acronym to confirm they are in a Mayday situation and must call the Mayday using the NUCAN acronym steps. Additionally, participants must state the actions they would take—turn on personal alert safety system (PASS), turn on a light, turn up radio volume, and so forth. Also, they would provide any additional follow-up information (i.e., sights, sounds, floor coverings).


    Firefighter: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!"
    IC: "Firefighter calling Mayday: Give me your NUCAN report."
    Firefighter: "IC, Firefighter Jones. Engine 3, searching first-floor, Bravo side.
    There was a collapse; I fell into the basement. I am alone, pinned, and cannot move.
    I am turning on my PASS and light. I have half a tank.
    I need immediate assistance."
    To increase difficulty, have the firefighter in the distress scenario don his SCBA mask and try to communicate on a portable radio. Place the lost firefighter in a location remote from the rescuer. The rescuer should attempt to obtain a NUCAN report from the down firefighter and take notes while doing so. Once the transmission is complete, the participants should get together to compare notes. The rescuer will thus see if he correctly understood the lost firefighter. If using radios in this training, be sure to use a nonmonitored tactical channel.
    Successfully navigating the perils of a career in firefighting requires complete buy-in of discipline, training commitment, and the safety mission. It involves total awareness—or meta-knowledge—a synthesis of knowledge accumulated over a career, training the right way, perceptions, processing risk, and discoveries of the ever-evolving environment. Only through this type of hyperawareness can we be better fireground combatants.


    Grossman, Dave. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. Warrior Science Group Inc., 2007.
    National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, "The Learning Triangle: Retention Rates from Different Ways of Learning," Bethel, Maine, 2005.
    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Suppression Division, where he is a captain. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of firefighter survival and rapid intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the "Nobody Gets Left Behind" training group. vonAppen writes the blog "Fully Involved" for
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