Lessons learned from a once-in-a-career training opportunity

The Evansville Fire Department Training Division suddenly found itself with two high-rise buildings at its disposal for countless training evolutions


By Dan Brown 

It’s a cold winter day in the Midwest. Your training department has been told they are getting two high-rise buildings (one 18 stories and one 7 stories) to conduct any training they see fit, because in 6 months, both structures will be demolished to make way for a new development. Nothing is off limits except actually catching the buildings on fire. Elevators, standpipe systems, hundreds of doors and windows to force, dozens and dozens of rooms available for search or other scenarios. It is a once-in-a-career training opportunity, and it has just landed directly in your lap.

What would you do with the buildings?

View of 420 Main (center) and The Sycamore Building (right) prior to demolition.
View of 420 Main (center) and The Sycamore Building (right) prior to demolition. (Photos/Chief John M. Buckman)

This was the lucky question facing the Evansville Fire Department Training Division in 2021.

The buildings in question had been purchased by a development consortium in 2019, and initial plans called for the renovation and remodeling of both structures. In early 2020, the project changed from a renovation project to demolition and new construction on the site, which expanded the types of training EFD would be able to perform.

The next few months were a whirlwind of meetings, planning, logistical challenges and individual company training, all culminating in a multi-day, multi-company high-rise fire drill. Getting from Point A (“We’re getting which buildings?!”) to Point Z (“That’s the last company, lock the doors!”) was rarely a straight line, but the end result was a great deal of practical knowledge for both Training Division personnel and the companies involved.

To that end, and with the sincere hope that learning from our mistakes might keep you from making your own, I humbly present the following lessons learned. They are applicable to both large- and small-scale training, and may prove useful as you go about the important work of helping to prepare your firefighters and company officers for their critical roles.

Figure out the big picture

Regardless of whether you are planning a multi-company scenario in the heart of downtown or gaming ideas for the weekly meeting of your volunteer department, it is critical to drill down and decide what, exactly, you want to accomplish. Having clearly defined performance expectations and outcomes will guide your personnel to success.

Because any Training Officer worth their bugles can come up with dozens of training drills that require very little in the way of equipment or facilities, the options presented by multiple high-rise buildings were mind-boggling. After much brainstorming, EFD Training Division personnel distilled dozens of ideas into the following two training goals:

  1. Provide guidance and logistical support to facilitate individual company training that could be developed and led by company officers.
  2. Develop and oversee a realistic, challenging and relevant multi-company high-rise training scenario that could be approached in a variety of ways at the discretion of incident commanders and company officers.

Once you’ve narrowed your focus into a few performance expectations, it is time to consider how many steps it will take to get from where you are to where you want to be.

How do you eat an elephant?

“One bite at a time,” so the adage goes. Even straightforward drills may need to be broken down into smaller steps, and it may take several sessions to accomplish your overall training goal.

For example, having crews conduct a TIC-assisted search scenario while wearing full PPE is a great way to train for real-world incidents. Before you light up those burn barrels or fire up the fog machine, though, a general review of TIC operations and basic search techniques may be in order, even if that means pushing off the actual scenario until the next training session. Setting your crews up for success by providing refresher training could mean the difference between a well-received, smoothly executed drill and a group of disgruntled or embarrassed firefighters who will go out of their way to avoid training with you in the future.

The training timeline for our high-rise buildings was designed to set aside adequate time for companies to conduct refresher and sustainment drills prior to the “main event” of the multi-company scenario. This meant companies were able to address equipment and performance deficiencies well in advance, which contributed to fewer hiccups and more successful outcomes on the day of the main scenario.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

Once you’ve figured out your overall training goals and have determined what steps are needed to accomplish them? It’s time to start putting your plan into motion, and the most important part of planning always comes back to communication.

Make a list of all the major (and minor) players who might end up getting involved with your training project, either by design or by accident. Then, once you’ve identified all these stakeholders, start talking to them.

While the project undertaken by EFD was admittedly larger than what you may regularly experience, even routine training evolutions can have a lot of moving parts. At a minimum, you should be coordinating with people in you chain of command and the crews involved in the training. Evolutions that take apparatus out of service for extended times may warrant a call to your local dispatch center or to surrounding jurisdictions to let them know about possible coverage or response issues. Multi-use rooms may need to be reserved well ahead of time. Maintenance personnel or officers assigned maintenance duties will need to double check that necessary equipment is in good working order. The list goes on, and the following is just a sampling of the individuals, companies and agencies with which EFD Training staff had to coordinate over the course of our training:

  • Reporters from local media outlets
  • City and county dispatch agencies
  • Mayor’s office
  • Local law enforcement departments that were also using the buildings for training
  • County public works departments
  • City legal and personnel departments
  • Utility companies
  • Property owners/managers and affiliated businesses in the high-rise towers and surrounding properties
  • Demolition contractors that were working in the buildings concurrent with fire department training
  • Alarm companies
  • Elevator repair and maintenance contractors
  • Fire equipment suppliers and vendors
  • Fire department command and general staff and division heads

Your list of stakeholders may be shorter or longer than the above, but regardless of the numbers, you will need to keep in constant contact with each individual or agency. It is unproductive (and unprofessional) to not address foreseeable problems simply because you didn’t bother to talk to the right people.

Let companies train on their own terms

If you are assigned as a training officer, it may come as a blow to your self-esteem when I say the firefighters and company officers on your department mostly don’t need you. Volunteer or career, every firefighter knows full well what topics and performance skills they need to train on. They know exactly what types of runs they face which will challenge them the most, and they know what techniques and equipment they really need to dust off and practice. There are endless internet resources, printed materials, online classes and in-person courses where these same firefighters and officers can find the expertise needed to address their own training needs.

So, what IS your job? Encouraging and facilitating required training and making it as easy as possible for companies to work on the skills they know they need to improve. There are myriad ways to accomplish this, but a primary way is to simply provide the resources and opportunity to address needs as they arise. If a firefighter mentions they could use a refresher on RIT procedures, arrange for it to happen. If a company officer calls about using your HQ parking lot for aerial deployment training, the answer should be “Yes, absolutely. What time is good for your crew?” After they arrive, provide an extra set of eyes to make sure the training is safe and in accordance with department standard operating guidelines (SOGs), then stand back and watch the magic happen. It may surprise you how much YOU can learn from company-led training.

Suppression personnel practicing forcible entry techniques during pre-drill training.
Suppression personnel practicing forcible entry techniques during pre-drill training.

Assist with the training, don’t micromanage it

Closely related to this point, and an important aspect part of the training we conducted at our high-rise buildings, was the proposition that the Training Division should assist, not manage, the training.

It is a universal truth in the fire service that “mandatory training” sucks. There. I said it, and I’m not sorry. To be certain, mandatory training may be important, timely and relevant. A creative instructor can also conduct such training so most firefighters walk away saying, “Well, it wasn’t THAT bad.” But it is a rare group of firefighters who race to their rig, high-fives all around, when a training officer calls to say they need to drop everything they are doing and attend department-mandated training.

With that in mind, it was determined early on that training leading up to the multi-apparatus scenario would largely be left up to individual companies as far as scheduling and topics covered. Within a month of getting the green light from building owners, Training Division personnel had already begun working with on-duty suppression companies at both high rises. Individual company officers were given the opportunity to select a time slot and specific skills they wanted to train on, with EFD Instructors assisting with topic refresher training and logistical support. In addition to an elevator operation update provided to all participating companies, a wide-range of skills were addressed by instructor staff and company officers, including standpipe operations, flow testing, high-rise pack deployment, forcible entry, ventilation, search procedures and general high-rise tactics.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that, by the time we were ready to conduct the multi-apparatus scenario, nearly half of the 250 firefighters and officers assigned to the Suppression Division had taken advantage of the opportunity presented. Anecdotally, even those companies that had not chosen to attend benefitted from the lessons learned, as equipment issues, tactics and techniques were discussed among company officers and firefighters at shift changeover, and we have no way of knowing how many additional hours of discussion or training were conducted in-house based on these interactions.

Focus training on simple aspects of the job, like search and rescue basics.
Focus training on simple aspects of the job, like search and rescue basics.

Keep it simple!

Several hundred thousand years ago, the first hut went up in flames. Shortly after that, a tribesman got the bright idea that throwing water on the burning hut might keep the rest of the village from burning down. He hopped and pointed and grunted and bossed people around until the fire was out, effectively becoming the world’s first fire chief. Well, maybe this is how it went.

Many things have changed over the eons, but once you strip away the technical jargon and fancy equipment, firefighting still involves two main things: putting wet stuff on the red stuff and rescuing those in harm’s way. Simple enough for a caveman (fire chief) to understand.

And, while there may be nothing simple about conducting large-scale drills, it is important to keep the actual performance expectations of the training as simple as possible. Throughout many planning sessions, we kept coming back to a few core concepts on which to focus:

  • Primary search and rescue
  • Water supply
  • Attack line and backup line deployment
  • Inter-company communications
  • Incident command and control
  • Ventilation

The above points should look familiar to you, as they are important not only at high-rise fires but at every fire your department makes. Fire doesn’t care if an attack line is being deployed from a high-rise pack to a 12th floor apartment or stretched across a barely there front yard to a single-family ranch house. It doesn’t care if the area being searched is a 12 x 10-foot bedroom or a 50 x 75-foot cubicle farm or, for that matter, if your water supply is coming from a FDC or an on-board booster tank. The techniques and staffing requirements may differ, but the strategic and tactical priorities are largely the same. Plan your drill to your department’s capability, needs and resources. Work the basics!

An inside look at scenario conditions encountered by first-arriving companies inside the structure:

 

Keep it fair

Not all companies are created equal. Every department has companies that are the poster children for competency and preparedness – fit, experienced crews with freshly pressed uniforms and winning smiles who are led by innovative, cool-headed company officers with a knack for making the right decision in high-stress situations.

There are also companies that may not fit all (or, let’s be honest, any) of the above descriptions. This is the crew biding their time at the slowest station in your jurisdiction, led by company officers who much prefer holding down a recliner to making sure their apparatus is in good order. Training is only conducted when mandatory, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth can be heard for miles.

Consider making your department-wide training like Goldilocks’ porridge – not too hot (difficult) and not too cold (easy). It should provide worthwhile training for your rock stars but not prove so challenging to the B-team that it can’t be accomplished with proper preparation and coaching.

Early on, the Training Division determined there would be no “gotchas” or extenuating circumstances baked into the multi-apparatus scenario. Companies would not have to worry about victims hidden in locked closets, simulated firefighter causalities or equipment failures engineered into the scenarios – good intercompany coordination and the application of basic, well-executed fireground skills would provide a successful outcome. Keeping to these tenets meant that motivated companies could unleash their advanced skills, but other companies could rely on the basics to get the job done. This philosophy also provided for consistent evaluation of performance for each company and firefighter. Some companies shined while others had stumbles, but every company made it through the scenario with at least some consistent level of success.

Make it as realistic as possible

Some training elements can be notional – imaginary considerations that would otherwise be too complicated or logistically challenging to actually create. A dark fire station dorm will generally suffice for practicing search skills, without the need to light the B-shift driver’s mattress on fire for that extra element of realism.

If possible, though, more realistic is generally better when it comes to training scenarios. It required a bit of elbow grease and creativity, but our training personnel were able to take several steps that increased the realism of the multi-apparatus scenario, including:

  • Staging scavenged office furniture, equipment and signage on the scenario floor to simulate a realistic tenant space.
  • Pre-scenario testing of the standpipe by training division personnel to ensure that companies could utilize stairwell hoseline hookups and supply water to the scenario floor using FDCs.
  • Attaching a heating pad to our training mannequin “victim” so companies using a TIC to assist in their searches would see a thermal signature.
  • Setting up a system to fill the selected floor with simulated smoke on demand and placement of LED panels in the “fire room” to provide visual cues for attack companies.
  • Using a wireless speaker system to simulate the obnoxious braying of an activated fire alarm on the scenario floor – a finishing touch met with more than a few dirty looks from company officers struggling to communicate with their incident commanders.

Elements like this add realistic stressors and obstacles that must be overcome and require actual use of the skills crews need on the fireground instead of pretending to use those skills. Erring on the side of realism is always the right idea.

Suppression and Training Division personnel discuss the drill during a debrief.
Suppression and Training Division personnel discuss the drill during a debrief.

Confirm that learning has occurred

Once the training is over, it’s important to confirm that learning has occurred. The equipment is back on the rig and the sweat is beginning to dry. Is there a better time to begin your training debrief and make sure everything went according to plan and your training goals were met?

Two hours were scheduled for each training group, but companies were generally able to complete the scenario and be prepared for debrief in under an hour. The IC and company officers were all given the opportunity to discuss their actions and lessons learned, and Training Division personnel gave feedback based on their observations.

These sessions proved an invaluable tool for companies to help determine what actions went well during the scenario and what areas could be improved. These lessons were later summarized by Training Division personnel for review and discussion, and were also used to help revise and refine EFD high-rise SOGs.

Make it count

Large-scale training in acquired structures can present unique challenges, but many of the basic components can be applied to training exercises of any size. The EFD Training Division was determined to make the most of the once-in-a-career opportunities these high-rise buildings presented. Close communication with all stakeholders, creative thinking, and the hard work of company officers and crewmembers alike allowed EFD Instructor staff to conduct hundreds of hours of quality training with suppression personnel over the space of several summer months.

When the buildings were finally demolished, the owners could rest assured that they had served a valuable purpose in the community until the very end.

About the Author

Dan Brown is a 22-year member of the Evansville (Indiana) Fire Department. His first 20 years were spent in the Suppression Division as a firefighter and company officer. He has been assigned as an instructor since 2020. He holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of Evansville as well as a variety of state and national fire and EMS certifications.

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