Drill Development: It’s Not Rocket Science, But It Is Science: Bob Carpenter

By Bob Carpenter

A bit more than a decade and a-half ago I found myself assigned to my fire department’s Training Division. The realization that I now had a systemic responsibility to provide meaningful training for my department was immediately shrouded in doubt, anxiety, and even a bit of fear. I had to ask myself if I was up to this.

Disclaimer: Nothing in the following text is intended to discredit individuals or the organization. Rather, it is stated to illustrate the culture of training that existed or that was perceived. Like most departments, our training division was massively underfunded, understaffed, and underappreciated, and the products it produced were often underwhelming. Loosely connected to established standards regarding fireground evolutions and annual self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) proficiency testing, the Training Division was really more of a testing division. It was rare that a visit from the district training officer resulted in learning new skills or realistically building on existing skills.  The sad truth was that it was usually just a test. Worse yet, the training officer usually had little support to correct deficiencies when noted. They were limited to advising company officers to “train up” the ones who had issues, and follow up was unlikely.

Frustrated by the above circumstance, I left the division as soon as I could only to be talked into returning about a year later. During that time, leadership had changed, philosophy had shifted, and I was told that I was being empowered to improve the way we did business! EMPOWERED! Can you imagine? Well, that has to be a bit more than a cheerleading mantra. And, to make a long story short, eventually, it was!

I had the privilege of working with a few like-minded captains whot had begun including an instructional component to training initiatives. That’s right, they had begun TEACHING! Crazy, right? They stopped assuming that the participants knew what to do and actually explained the procedures. They demonstrated the steps and provided an opportunity for practice. They not only encouraged participation; they required it. The latter was less of an issue than one might think. You see, when people are given the tools to succeed, they are not only able to do so--they are WILLING to do so.

This manifested in a wholesale change in the entire department’s attitude toward training. Crews and individuals were less inclined to avoid training sessions; they looked forward to them and were often disappointed if not included.

Training vs. Drilling

Training and drilling are two distinctly different activities. The terms are interchangeable in conversation, but in application they differ greatly. Consider that training is the learning of a new skill or transitioning from an existing procedure to a new one. This should result in a basic understanding and ability. This is known as “competence.” Drilling, on the other hand, connotes repetition and increased intensity. This activity moves the participant beyond competency to mastery. Frequently, review and practice provide maintenance of the mastered skill.

What is described above is a summary of five “Laws of Adult Learning” that have become the blueprint for many productive departmentwide initiatives and company training in the years since. They are as follows:

·       The Law of Readiness. The participant must be prepared for the lesson by making it relevant.

·       The Law of Primacy. The process as first learned is the cornerstone of future learning. It must be taught correctly the first time.

·       The Law of Repetition. Get it right, then repeat, repeat, repeat until it is automatic. This creates the neural pathways that make “muscle (motor) memory” a reality.

·       The Law of Intensity. Adding progressive, incremental degrees of difficulty challenge the skill to apply to different situations.

·       The Law of Recency. The most recent performance of or exposure to the task is likely to be the most readily recalled. Revisiting the skill set frequently provides maintenance of performance.

Providing the information that enables your students to succeed is not cheating. It’s called teaching! It isn’t taking shortcuts. It’s creating a path to success! Having students fail and fail and fail again does not magically suddenly result in learning.

Make Success the Default

 Training and Drilling sessions should be designed with an expectation of success with a possibility of failure rather than an expectation of failure with the possibility of success. Reread this statement a couple of times; let it sink in. The latter part of this statement has been the default position experienced through much of my career. Officers and training staff seemed to operate from the position that the exercise had to be extremely difficult to be valid. The difficulty was often built in with the express intent to result in failure. I’m sure this resonates with many readers. Difficulty for the sake of just being difficult is counterproductive.

During my tenure as a training officer, I was responsible for review and approval of training plans submitted by company officers that included submission of a formal Safety Plan. I recall receiving a phone call from an officer who had just e-mailed his weekend drill plan.  He was so excited about his plan that he called immediately after hitting the send button to get my feedback: “Take a look at the plan that I just sent you,” he said. “You’re going to love it! They will never be able to do this!”

That exchange is an example of a failure-based training model.  The instructor has, from the onset, an expectation of failure on the part of the participants. As this is his default position, the participants come to expect failure, too. Occasionally, someone may power through the maze of impossible objectives and succeed.  But, this is the exception. Therefore, the expectation of failure with a slim possibility of success is in place. Participants who do try simply try not to fail instead of trying to succeed.

In contrast, a success-based training model, one where the instructor as well as the participant expects to be successful, has the opposite affect. A training session that consists of a block of instruction on the task that includes demonstration and practice prior to performance gives all involved an expectation of success. If the task is complex, there may be some failures. That is okay. Those can and should be corrected, ideally prior to the participant’s leaving the training grounds.

The Law of Recency is one of the most important of the laws of adult learning.  It says that the most recent performance or exposure to the task is likely to be the most readily recalled. Simply put, that suggests that if the last time the firefighter attempted a skill, it led to a failure, then the failure will likely repeat when the skill is called on in reality.  So, if firefighters are struggling with ladder throws in training, how can we expect them to perform a ladder rescue if the bells drop while returning to quarters from the drill?

The concepts discussed here are important for more than the Training Officer.  The perception I shared about my department’s training division is the one held by many, if not most, fire departments.  Training officers are usually greatly outnumbered and face unrealistic “reach” expectations in most agencies. It is imperative, then, that company officers understand the process as well. Whether appointed or promoted through competitive application and testing, the company officer is the most important training officer of the fire department, the person who can make realistic assessments of the individuals and company in day-to-day response and performance.   

By whatever method the firefighter becomes the company officer, the agency is obligated to develop that person in the responsibilities of the title. Training the company officer to be a training officer is probably the most important. A pedigree rich in command school and strategy and tactics is important, but applying that knowledge to achieve the goals of the incident in particular and the department in general is what our communities expect. Instructor development at the company officer level is the most effective way to get the most out of meager training budgets. Company officers who understand how to develop training sessions motivate company members, improve morale and performance, and aid retention, especially in volunteer agencies that struggle to keep effective response rosters.

Training with a success-based model is not about making training easy. It is anything but easy. It is simply about effectively providing the information needed to perform the tasks. If the task is difficult either technically or physically, of course, the training will be difficult, too. Teaching your members how to do the job should not result in their hating training.

I have heard it said that what I describe above is part of what is wrong with the American fire service--that people like me need to stop trying to “change my culture.”  I’ll make this simple:  The success-based training model is known by another word--teaching. The other approach is simply testing. There is nothing wrong with testing.  Testing establishes a baseline as a needs assessment; that’s what happens at the “no notice” drill; you discover what is not known. Testing also determines if the lesson has been taught effectively.  Teaching improves performance. The two actions are interdependent.

Training ordinary people to do extraordinary things is a complex process. Workshops like “Drill Development: It’s not rocket-science but it’s still science.” seek to simplify the process by eliminating common stumbling blocks. The fire service culture has always been about making the job safer, the members more skilled, and the processes better. This IS our culture.


BOB CARPENTER recently retired as captain at Station 21 in the lst Battalion from Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue. He has been in the fire service for almost 40 years. He previously worked for a combination department and also served as a volunteer. He was an officer development lead instructor, recruit officer in charge, and training officer for the North Operations Division.