I know a chief who had a sign that he used in one of his presentations. It was a classic bulletin board saying: “All employees not fired with enthusiasm — soon will be.”
Obviously, contemporary personnel rules, regulations and statutes prohibit us from arbitrarily firing people merely because they're unmotivated. We can see that this is the case when we observe those people in our chosen profession who have lost all motivation and are merely going through the motions. This isn't an isolated problem, as I've heard these feelings expressed by more than one person in the fire service.
So why am I suggesting that you fire your training officer? Well, actually I'm not, but I am interested in what the role of a training officer should be within the context of a contemporary fire agency. When we talk about training officers, there are many aspects of the job that come to mind: putting out a training schedule, conducting drills out on the grinder and, as occurs in many fire departments, taking on all of the little projects that nobody else seems to want to do.
If this description sounds familiar, then you may well have been a training officer at some point in your career. If this is how you see your department's training officer, then you need to pay attention. I believe that the old concept of a training officer is far too limiting for the responsibilities of continuing education in today's fire service.
Specifically, I'm referring to a concept that's gaining in popularity called lifetime learning. At one time, people went to school, earned a degree, graduated and went to work. They were considered to be competent when they achieved a certain level of educational achievement. As a matter of fact, at one point having a degree was more important than knowing anything. That day is long gone.
Our society's rate of change, combined with technological obsolescence and information half-life, has resulted in an entire shift in the world of knowledge. For those of you who haven't heard these terms before, information half-life is the time it takes for half of what you know to no longer be useful, and technological obsolescence refers to the fact that the tools we use are sometimes rendered obsolete because they're replaced over time with technology.
The fire service seems to think that it's exempt from both of these phenomena. I have heard discussions with individuals who've expressed the belief that basic fire protection technology hasn't changed much in the last 50 years. On the other hand, I've attended several recent fire service conferences where the tools and technology laid on the display cases would have baffled firefighters who retired less than 10 years ago.
The concept of lifetime learning is linked to a continual process of adaptation taking place just about everywhere you look. Nowhere can this concept be truer than in the fire service. How many of you have a departmental policy that says every firefighter should receive two hours of training per day? How many of you realize that, in some cases, those two hours of training are repetitive, boring, irrelevant and bureaucratic?
That realization is why I think we ought to stop referring to our training officers as training officers. I think we should start calling them “learning officers.” I know that might not sit very well with those concerned with the rank on their badges, but the concept is becoming increasingly significant in our society, as revealed by Linda Honold in How to Develop Employees that Know How to Learn.
The word “fire” doesn't appear within this book in any way at all, but there's still a message for fire personnel that shouldn't go unobserved. Honold says that although training may or may not result in improved performance, learning is absolutely essential. I don't want to repeat the entire book here, because I would like to encourage those of you who are trying to change your organizations to get your own copy and read what she has to say.
However, I will refer to a couple of concepts that Honold employs because I think they're relevant. For example, she proposes that we consider learning as a day-to-day, minute-by-minute activity which doesn't always fit into traditional training evaluation systems. In short, she says that people who aren't learning aren't living, and people who are living should be learning.
Another concept of Honold's, which I believe in almost more than anything in the book, is that the person who's most responsible for creating learning is the individual. Imagine what would happen to your fire department if you walked in on Monday morning and said, “We're going to give up on the training schedule.”
How many of your officers would go out of their way to ensure that all the members of their company were adequately exposed to the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to survive on the fireground? I believe that most people would still find some compelling reason as to why they had better learn what they needed to know to survive on the fire ground.
Honold's research was conducted in the private sector. I know that we often have difficulty reacting to concepts from the private sector because we believe that we in the fire service are different. But as I continued reading her book, I realized that many of her concepts are part of the contemporary fire service culture. For example, Honold talks about informal and non-formal training. She talks about peer networking. She talks about learning environments as opposed to classes being conducted.
I would be willing to bet that some of you can remember learning experiences which had nothing to do with the traditional classroom environment. I can go back in my career and recount exposure to individuals who elevated my learning to a very intense level, yet I don't recall us ever putting anything down on the training record.
Experiences like this show why it's becoming increasingly important that we understand the role of the department training officer isn't just to put out a schedule, periodically review the records and reports, and ask for certain evolutions at the drill tower. The training officer should be the learning officer.
Anybody who has been paying attention to developments in the field of human resources over the past few years is probably familiar with the concept of the learning organization. Peter Senge, the godfather of this concept, has advocated that if an organization hopes to survive in contemporary society, it had better do everything it can to create an appropriate environment for learning.
Many of us have read Senge's books, but have we acted on those writings? Have our fire departments changed their behavior or thought processes to create a learning environment? Well, there's good news and bad news: Some departments have and some departments haven't. Probably the most important thing to know is in which of these categories sits your department.
At the center of this entire concept of learning, whether we're talking about officers or organizations, is the notion that the individual matters. The development, enhancement, encouragement and support of the individual is extremely important.
Unfortunately, we in the fire service don't think too much in terms of individuals with respect to our delivery systems. We focus on teams and emphasize that the fire company is the basic building block of most departments. The challenge here might be the need to develop mechanisms that place more emphasis on the individual while asking the team to perform at a specific level.
Some might make the case that we do focus on the individual by maintaining personalized training records, but those are essentially an exposure documentation system. The problem is that those records often are kept by the department to ensure that it receives credit for conducting training. It has nothing to do with whether the person actually learned anything.
With that distinction in mind, what I'm suggesting is some introspection. Perhaps it's time for us to look at the role of the training officer as a facilitator of individualized learning instead of as a shepherd of the flock.
Training records probably will always be maintained, but departments that are primed for organizational learning tend to have better morale and higher levels of performance, and they're much more competitive on a scale of public productivity.
I once got a big kick out of a specific training officer's basic job description. It was one phrase: “To create an environment within this company that promotes the idea that people need to learn.” If we review the job descriptions of our training officers, they probably will detail an awful lot of specifics that have absolutely nothing to do with learning.
I admit that we're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water — a cliché that basically says the fire service is very reluctant to change anything quickly over night. But we can begin to focus as much as we can on an organization's need to have individuals who are learning according to their own styles, at their own rates and their own interests.
Ronny J. Coleman is the president of the Fire & Emergency Television Network and a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He has served as fire chief in Fullerton and San Clemente, Calif., and was the fire marshal of the State of California from 1992 to 1999. He is a certified fire chief and a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. A Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, he has an associate's degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in vocational education.