According to estimates from the National Fire Protection Association, there are over 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. As of 2012, however, professional firefighters comprise the majority in only 15 percent of fire departments across the country. Approximately 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers.

Volunteer firefighters are prevalent in the South and the Midwest, especially in rural areas lacking the resources to staff their departments with career firefighters. While these first responders possess skills sufficient to deal with most emergencies, there are instances when the lack of comprehensive firefighter training creates problems.

Insufficient training puts volunteer firefighters at risk
Irregular or subpar training can hamper the effectiveness of even the most experienced firefighters, and volunteers are often not held to the same training standards as professional peers. A report from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, for example, found that firefighters on-site at the April 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer Co.—including 12 men who were killed in a subsequent explosion—were not to blame for the accident. However, there was a deficiency in their training and preparation that led to a lapse in safety.

“The lack of adherence to nationally recognized consensus standards and safety practices for the fire department exposed firefighters to excessive risks and failed to remove them from a critically dangerous situation,” the report stated, as quoted by The Associated Press. “The strategy and tactics utilized by the West Volunteer Fire Department were not appropriate for the rapidly developing and extremely volatile situation, and exposed the firefighters to extreme risks.”

The report recommends that Texas adopt new training requirements for volunteer firefighters, encouraging local agencies to create plans to better contend with large-scale blazes and fires involving hazardous materials. Establishing new policies to educate all firefighters, both volunteer and professional, can improve emergency response in the future.

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Make the most of training with effective practices
“We cannot simply walk into our volunteer firehouse and pretend we are ready—we need to be ready,” Tom Merrill, a 30-year fire department veteran in New York, wrote for Fire Engineering. “One of the keys to being ready is regular and pertinent training. Good solid training encompassing the entire membership will equate to good performance on the fireground.”

The same budgetary problems that gravitate fire departments toward a heavy reliance on volunteers will constrain their ability to train first responders. Training coordinators can help improve firefighter readiness, though, by incorporating some general practices:

  • Focus on basic procedures first—Although practicing for advanced scenarios is important, Merrill suggests training should emphasize basic fire attack procedures. Practice the most common strategies and familiarize volunteers with the rig and all equipment. Drilling this fundamental information into firefighters’ minds can ensure they know how to act quickly and correctly in a crisis.
  • Conduct joint training sessionsFire Rescue 1 recommends that departments learn together. The same drills that introduce volunteer crew members to necessary skills will provide a welcome refresher course for veterans. Co-located training can improve firefighting practices and strengthen relationships between crew members who may not frequently interact outside of an emergency. Not only can this lead to better coordination during an crisis, joint training also creates opportunities for mentoring.
  • Spice up your repetition—Training should be conducted throughout the year, re-introducing core concepts and allowing crew members to practice them regularly. To keep the training from becoming stale, Fire Engineering recommends changing scenarios from session to session, injecting surprises into each drill even while reinforcing needed skills. To overcome logistic challenges caused by shift rotations, departments should also plan to alternate the time, day and location of training to accommodate all personnel.

Volunteer firefighters are an integral part of fire prevention and protection. Failing to adequately train any individual puts all personnel in danger. Local departments can lessen risks by investing in regular, comprehensive training for all first responders, placing particular emphasis on giving volunteers a solid foundation of knowledge to use in the field. Departments that support and maintain successful training programs may find they are better prepared when disaster strikes.

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