Take the long view on firefighter training

As with EMS or hazmat training, fire chiefs must approach diversity training with a long-term view

By Linda Willing

New police officers in Montgomery, Ala., experience a kind of training not seen in most cities around the country.

The course is titled "Policing in a Historic City: Civil Rights and Wrongs in Montgomery" and it involves studying the history of race relations and civil rights in Montgomery and throughout the country. The class culminates with a bus tour of historical sites in Montgomery and a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum.

It's an interesting concept. As one officer and instructor said, the course is intended to provide context, an understanding of what's behind any given situation police might respond to.

"You're still firm, but a little bit more de-escalating," he said. "Instead of trying to add to that fire that's already burning. Try to see if we can put it out a little bit. And that's what policing in a historic city is all about. It's trying to put out the fire that's been burning too long."

The article about this program included comments at the end. One comment in particular caught my attention.

It said, "This is a wonderful idea, and I wish I could be more optimistic about it. However, the cynic in me wonders how many officers come to the class, sit in the back with their arms folded, and then go for coffee afterwards to grumble about how 'this is all in the past' and 'professional victims.'"

Reactionary training
I know what this person is talking about. As someone who has done training for fire and emergency services departments for over two decades, I have had plenty of those people in my classes over the years. It can be discouraging.

What has always kept me going was faith in the long view. Training and development on topics like diversity and ethics and cultural change will never have immediate effects in any organization.

It takes time, a percolation of ideas, the chance to test new theories in a personal context. It might be months or years later when something that a person experienced in such a class has a real impact.

The problem is that many fire departments do not design such training with the long view in mind. Instead they create training in a reactionary way. Something bad happens — a harassment complaint, an incidence of unethical behavior, an embarrassing lack of professionalism — and they feel the need to remedy it.

So they bring in a trainer to teach a class, and not surprisingly, many of the people who attend are like the ones described above, sitting in the back row with arms crossed. Then the department concludes that such training doesn't work, and they abandon it. That is, until the next problem occurs.

This reactionary way of training doesn't work. It doesn't work for the technical aspects of the job and it really doesn't work for the more interpersonal, management and leadership part of it.

Skill-maintenance training
Fire departments have learned that they must prepare their members for potential problems — for example, training in hazardous materials response long before the first train derailment and chemical leak. And technical training is never something that just happens once.

Everyone understands that maintaining skills in areas like hazmat, EMS or extrication requires an ongoing commitment. So it must be with training in other critical competencies such as diversity and leadership and conflict management.

A few days after I saw the original comment about the Montgomery police training, another one appeared in response to it.

This comment said, "I attended such classes in my career. Many of us sat in the back row with arms folded. The simple lessons they taught took a while to sink in but the truth resonates. It took years, but that truth kept buzzing around my head like a horsefly. It sank in a little at a time. I wonder if the organizers of such programs ever get to recognize the effects of their labors."

It is hard to measure the usefulness of programs when they might seem to have no effect (or even a negative effect) in the short run. If all that fire chiefs hear is what a waste of time it is to do diversity training, they might be tempted to try it once and abandon it as a failure.

This would be a mistake. Certainly programs should be evaluated, and there is no question that there is a wide range of quality in the training being offered. Some training can do more harm than good.

But a well-considered, relevant class will always resonate over time. Fire chiefs must have faith that the right message will indeed "buzz around like a horsefly" until an individual can really see the truth in it. And then the investment will be more than worth it.

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