7 firefighter training drills not found in books

Most of these skill-building exercises can be used year-round and with minimal cost and equipment


This article has been updated to include videos and additional resources.

Every firefighter has a favorite drill or training exercise. Most are described in the pages of IFSTA manuals or training books or on fire service websites.

Approved, measured and used as standards throughout the country, these drills are the backbone of the competency and skill needed by every member of the fire service.

As part of the wedge spreader and eggs fire training drill, firefighters are first asked to pick up small- to medium-size blocks of wood with a hydraulic spreader. (Photo/YouTube)
As part of the wedge spreader and eggs fire training drill, firefighters are first asked to pick up small- to medium-size blocks of wood with a hydraulic spreader. (Photo/YouTube)

However, there are a few practice drills outside the pages of the aforementioned sources. These are the drills passed down from generational firefighter to rookie – off the record and certainly not in any book.

These are the training scenarios that test more than required capability. They assess dexterity, cleverness and grace under pressure – the measure of common sense amid the chaos.

1. "My baby, my baby" Firefighter training drill

First conceived as a routine addition to any engineer's test in days gone by, this drill can be applied to any firefighter training evolution today.

An engine arrives on the training ground with an assignment to pull a line and pump tank water. As soon as the crew exits the rig, a civilian runs up to an unsuspecting firefighter and screams, "My baby! My baby!"

Hysterical, loud, incoherent and a real distraction, but with no physical threat, this chaotic intrusion into the scenario tests the mettle of even the most experienced and well-trained firefighter. Here's what to look for in this drill.

  • How do firefighters handle the intrusion?
  • Are firefighters allowed to restrain or isolate the civilian at the expense of the drill?
  • Are the cries relevant to the call and is there substance in the panicked voice?
  • Are there abandonment issues in ignoring the pleas and is it appropriate to direct a firefighter to intervene?

Finally, measure the drill's success on exactly how long it took to get water and if the evolution was delayed because of the civilian.

2. Old Mack ladder Firefighter training drill

Unlike the church climb and other ladder drills based on trust and teamwork, this ladder drill is about individual confidence and a commitment to succeed.

A moderate-risk/high-reward evolution and never in any documented JPR, this drill is often conducted on the down low, furthering the mythical solidification of crew.

Imagine a 1972 Mack 100 ladder truck, its ladder extended 80 feet at a 60-degree angle. A lifeline is threaded from the base of the ladder to just below the top rung with two or three firefighters on belay.

With a belt and a tie-off to the line, a firefighter climbs to the top of the ladder and rolls over to its underside and climbs down. Losing your grip means a long belay to the ground amid the cheers and catcalls of your fellow firefighters.

Unable to achieve the task the first time out, many firefighters endure the hours of practice it takes to finally crawl over the rail and rung assembly and climb down the underside of the ladder in full bunker gear and SCBA.

Teamwork is not revealed in the act, but rather advice and sincere support from fellow firefighters. Training methods specific to the drill are passed around and related to each rookie willing to ask for help. A firefighter's individual success is a silent testament to the team.

Read more about aerial ladder safety: Reducing the risk of aerial incidents.

3. Glove and screw Firefighter training drill

With gloves on and after a cardio workout, firefighters are placed before bowls of nuts and bolts of various sizes. Their task is to assemble them all and place them in order of size outside the bowls. A variation on this is having nut-and-bolt combinations separated into different bowls.

Control, focus, and a certain amount of patience and cooperation is required amid the competition. After the exercise, discussion quickly turns to different types of gloves and which ones work best.

Ideas and opinions flow freely and a simple drill quickly expands into areas such as extrication, hazmat and forcible entry.

Look for any level of frustration exhibited by tired and stressed firefighters and how it was handled individually and collectively. Look for the point where competition turned into cooperation.

Check out this example of the drill in action:

4. Wedge spreader and eggs Firefighter training drill

This drill is a fire department classic and has many variations. As a two-part extrication drill, firefighters are first asked to pick up small- to medium-size blocks of wood with a hydraulic spreader.

These tools work at 10,000 psi and firefighters must pick up and arrange the blocks while causing only minimal damage. Practice can last for hours and Part 1 culminates with minimal dings to the wood.

Part 2 consists of the same task but with eggs instead of wood blocks. The result is totally predictable and a firefighter's repeated failures and eventual success are met with the laughter and enthusiasm you would expect. Any leftover eggs are used in a shift omelet or egg salad sandwiches.

Here's a variation from the South River Machar Fire Department in Ontario, Canada:

5. Hot wrench and TIC Firefighter training drill

A newer drill, but one certainly outside convention, is finding a hot wrench with an infrared thermal device.

A large fixed wrench is heated in the oven and carefully placed somewhere in the fire station, taking care not to ignite adjacent materials. Crews can now seek out the victim wrench using the department's thermal imaging camera.

Crews learn about search and rescue, grid formations, and the individual and collective challenges associated with various locations and crew assignments.

Read more about using TICs in training: Training Day: Advancing the fire hose line with thermal imaging cameras

6. No-hand knot Firefighter training drill

This drill involves two firefighters, one with a rope and the other with hands behind the back. The hand-hidden firefighter is the instructor and must tell the other firefighter how to tie the knot.

The student firefighter must obey the instructor's every command until the knot is tied. Blindfolding the instructor adds another layer to the drill, as does blindfolding the student.

This drill amplifies listening skills and contributes to real communication and task completion. Working end, bight, loop and hitch take on new meanings as firefighters struggle to finish the knot.

Here are some basic fire service knots you could use for the drill:

7. Outside the box Firefighter training drill

Cut a piece of rebar with a grinder wheel while lying upside-down on a table with the rebar under the table.

As with any skills practice, this inverted slant on things reflects the dexterity and tool control needed outside a normal training ground scenario. Under a vehicle, tied off on a ladder or only using one hand are additional elements in this challenging approach to proficiency exercises.

try it and pass it on ...

Most fire departments with storied histories have drills steeped in homegrown tradition and exclusive to their culture and heritage. Passed down from firefighter to firefighter, these unique training sessions solidify the character of a fire department over and above the requirements of the job.

So what is your favorite, outside-the-book drill and what lessons did you learn from it? Sound off in the comments or share your best drills at editor@firerescue1.com.

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