Is safe firefighter training good?

Sep 28, 2022

I ran an international course in firefighting and during an exercise there was one participant who almost sprained his ankle. He took me aside and talked to me seriously. There was a difference in floor height between two containers and it was absolutely not OK. If such an injury were to occur in his facility, there was a risk that the training would be banned. Injuries were not allowed to occur during training.

Of course, we can smooth the floors, build railings so that you can't fall, put out cold fires and put soft fluffy cushions on hard edges. It is quite possible to build a safe training environment, but we should certainly not do that. Yep, a training environment should be dangerous. At the very least it should feel dangerous. But before any safety officers get a brain hemorrhage, let me explain. It can feel obvious that safety should be a top priority in training. But there are two big problems with this attitude to training.


1. It is someone else's responsibility that your training is safe. It is the instructor, manufacturer or safety officer who must ensure this.
But if you know that something is safe, no matter how wrongly you behave, you will not focus on your own safety. It is obvious that it can be convenient to stand up when smoke diving in poor visibility if you know that you can neither trip nor get too hot. But if you know instead that the next step you take can result in a very nasty fall into the basement, then you will gently crawl forward.
No one else will make you safe, it's your responsibility. As an instructor, I can help you manage the risks, but I can't remove them without other consequences.

2. If we train safe, we will also be safe on real incidents. The risks that are removed during training are compensated by good risk assessments on scene.
But if you believe that you can think about more things during a real incident than at training, well then you have an overconfidence in your brains capacity. And if you think you're suddenly going to do what you should be doing, not what we trained on, then you also have an overconfidence in your brain.
Your training environment should have the same risks, though with less consequences, as the real incident. Then you are always forced to deal with them, while at the same time having to solve the task.


Should we build killing machines for training?

A very dangerous training environment would certainly cause some firefighters to die during the exercise. But those who survive would be very competent on real incidents. They have learned how to detect and manage the risks. And they know you don't cheat just because it works sometimes.
But no, we're probably not going to build killing machines.


It's dangerous to train, I promise!

But it would be great if those who trained actually thought it was a killing machine that they were going into. If I don't listen to the instructor, it's my last coffee cup. And it would be great if the instructor actually thought they were the difference between life and death for the students, not just an administrator of training registration.
But you can't fool people, at least not in the long run. You cannot build a completely safe facility and say that it is dangerous. With new firefighters it may work for a while before they realize it's an amusement park. But for experienced firefighters, it's impossible from the start.


Moderately dangerous training.

But we can and should build moderately dangerous training environments where wrong behaviors actually have consequences. Sprained ankles, scrapes, red shoulders and other minor injuries should be possible, but of course not sought after. As a trainee, you should know that you need to do as instructed, otherwise you will have to take the consequence of your errors. And as an instructor, you should know that you have to make sure that the trainees are doing the right thing. Otherwise you will have to stand there with the shame and say sorry.


Safety is the byproduct of doing the right thing.

Safety should never be priority 1 in training. Doing the right thing is priority 1.
If we practice doing the right things, in the right way, safety will be a byproduct of that. And if everyone knows that it is their own responsibility to do the right thing, otherwise there will be consequences, then the actual ability to manage risks will be high. And that is what we're striving for. Skilled firefighters who can handle a risky workplace and still solve the task.

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