More departments are choosing civilians, rather than firefighters, for their training officers.
It's a typical Monday morning and fire crews are arriving for another day of training at the Fresno (Calif.) Fire Department's training division. The training officer has worked with several subject-matter experts from the department and some from fire agencies in other states on the training topic that will be rolled out over the next month. She has collaborated and negotiated with private vendors to ensure that the media she will use is state of the art and will capture the attention of firefighters (i.e., sufficient video of fire and things blowing up).
She also has developed a training schedule that provides the most efficient use of class time, limiting the amount of time the crews will be away from their response districts. This might sound like a typical training officer going about her normal duties. The key difference in this case is that the training officer is a civilian who has no prior fire-service experience.
A trend has been growing in the fire service to incorporate civilians into the role of full-time fire-service trainers. The use of civilians (non-sworn, non-firefighting personnel) in support roles is not new. They have been used for administrative assistance and clerical support since the inception of the organized training division (if there is such a thing). We even have contracted with them as trainers for short-term, specialized topics such as organizational improvement or perhaps a series on leadership and management. However, a few progressive fire-service organizations have begun to use civilians to augment their cadre of full-time training officers, a role traditionally reserved solely for sworn firefighters.
The Fresno Fire Department currently provides fire protection services to the city of Fresno (the fifth largest city in California), as well as two adjacent fire-protection districts. The department operates out of 24 fire stations and protects a population of more than 550,000 with a force exceeding 330 uniformed firefighters. Until late 2006, the department staffed its training division with one training chief and two assistant training officers, fire captains who were re-assigned from the field to a two-year rotation.
For many years the department realized that the training division was terribly understaffed, that a sizable amount of mandatory training wasn't getting done and that the training that was being done was not well documented. In late 2006, the department went through some rapid growth and, helped along by several other contributing factors, the training division was able to add three assistant training officers. One was an additional sworn position (fire captain); however, the other two positions were authorized to be filled by civilians. Since then, the department has seen tremendous success from its civilian training officer concept and has become a model that other organizations are beginning to follow.
Reasons for the Trend
There are several reasons for the growing trend. In some cases it is driven by simple economics. Civilian staff members typically are less expensive than full-time firefighters — mainly because of the added costs of hiring, training, equipping and paying sworn employees. Civilian employees might be paid comparable salaries, but the balance of their benefit costs usually are less than half that of sworn employees. In light of the current economic crisis, the use of civilian training officers in some agencies has made the difference between a department's training division remaining open and still somewhat effective, or closing it down entirely.
While economics were not the initial reason for Fresno to employ civilian training officers, they became an unexpected benefit during the current budget crisis when the training division was forced to cope with a significant reduction in funding. The lower benefit costs of the civilian staff allowed them to remain in place and keep the training division open and effective. In fact, we had enough data to show that the civilian training officers more than paid for themselves in terms of reduced operating costs.
In some cases, the civilian training officer possesses special skills or credentials the average firefighter might not have or is too cost-prohibitive to provide. In Fresno's case, one of the civilian training officers is a registered nurse and serves as the department's EMS coordinator. This appears to be, by far, the most common use of civilian trainers. Although we had former firefighter/training officers with prior experience as paramedics, the background and credentials of a nurse gives the program a higher level of credibility — both within the organization and with the outside EMS agencies with which we must coordinate.
Bringing firefighters up to the mobile intensive care nurse (MICN) level of training would be incredibly expensive, with little return on the investment because of the relatively short amount of time (one to two years) they would be assigned to the training division. In contrast, the civilian training officer does not rotate back into the field every two years. This allows the institutional knowledge gained by the civilian employee to grow continuously, an advantage when compared with firefighters, who face a steep learning curve each time they rotate into the training role.
Our other civilian training officer is used as a curriculum/media specialist. This type of civilian position doesn't appear to be nearly as common as the EMS trainer, but it is growing quickly because of the need to incorporate more electronic media in an organization's training program. For example, Fresno's curriculum/media specialist has a background in curriculum development and adult learning in the private sector, including experience as a trainer for several Fortune 500 companies. This particular training officer has helped develop computer-based learning-management and records-management systems, which permit the organization to provide station-based training that allows crews to remain in service and in their first-in districts.
Because our department protects an area of almost 400 square miles, reducing the number of trips back and forth to any single training location is a huge gain in efficiency — both in terms of service levels and budget savings. In addition, we now are able to better track training hours and credentialing levels so that, when audited, the department can prove that we're doing what we say we're doing. This is a vast improvement over where we were just three years ago. Other agencies that have incorporated this type of civilian training officer include the Kern County (Calif.) Fire Department, the Clark County (Nev.) Fire Department (Nev.), the San Antonio Fire Department and the Oak Harbor (Wash.) Fire Department.
Even though the intent of this article is to outline the use of the civilian training officer versus the traditional firefighter training officer, there is a hybrid example that basically is a combination of the two types. A common practice is to hire back retired firefighters as civilian training officers as a type of second career. This option may provide the best of both worlds, depending on the employee. In addition to the Fresno, Clark County and Oak Harbor departments, agencies that have incorporated this type of hybrid training officer include the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Fire Protection District (Calif.), the Roseville (Calif.) Fire Department and the Wheeling (Ill.) Fire Department.
In Fresno's case, assigning firefighters to rotate into the training division was akin to asking them to volunteer to serve jail time. The firefighters did not want to give up shift work and the amount of off-duty time it provided, plus the training division had a reputation of having an overwhelming workload that would sometimes intimidate even those who might otherwise be interested in the assignment. As a result, the primary purpose of the interview process essentially became to determine which training-officer candidates had the best excuses for not getting the assignment.
Because civilian training officers don't rotate back into a field assignment, they don't have this limitation. Therefore, they have the ability to perform with a higher level of proficiency throughout the assignment rather than just towards the latter stages of their rotation, and they are able to take on more work, which has lessened the workload for the sworn training officers when they do rotate into the division. This, in turn, has helped to attract more qualified candidates who actually volunteer for the transfer opportunity in the more traditional sense.
Drawbacks to Consider
The use of civilian training officers does not come without some drawbacks. In most agencies, this position often is called up to provide assistance when an incident occurs, or to fill short-term vacancies in the fire stations. Even though civilian training officers can provide much needed assistance in terms of incident support, in many circumstances their use obviously will be limited in comparison with trained firefighters. In Fresno, we have used our civilian staff — especially our nurse/EMS coordinator — to supervise incident rehabilitation activities, augmented by civilian volunteers, i.e., community emergency response teams. By assigning civilians to tasks such as medical monitoring, more firefighters are freed up for operational needs.
In some cases, there may be concerns from the local labor groups about the perceived loss of firefighter or fire officer positions. The key is discussing the issues in advance and determining the best solutions for the organization as a whole. For instance, it may not make sense to civilianize the entire training division, especially in cases were the organization is small and needs the training officer positions to augment staffing for emergencies, or to help staff fire stations from time to time.
In the case of very large organizations, the impact of the training staff on day-to-day operations may be less perceivable. As an example, Clark County is one of the largest fire agencies in the country, but its training division is almost entirely comprised of civilian training officers. Because they have such a large organization with a sizable day-to-day force of firefighters, it takes a very large incident to exceed the organization's response capacity. Therefore, the impact of having, or not having, the additional staff from the training division is minimal.
In Fresno's case, three of the five training officers are fire captains, so they can be quickly called out to emergencies and take on positions within the ICS structure — typically that of safety officers, which helps incident response to function more safely and perhaps more efficiently. They also provide the key structure needed for many training activities, since there always will be a need for hands-on training taught by qualified personnel.
In terms of the labor groups, the fact that one of the new training officer positions added in 2007 was designated as a fire captain helped to alleviate their concerns regarding the loss of future firefighter positions. They also were somewhat relieved that instead of assigning five involuntary candidates to the training division, they only would have to deal with three. So timing played an important role in gaining acceptance for this strategy.
There are other concerns. What happens after 10 or 20 years to civilian employees who do not have the option to rotate in and out of their assigned duties? Will they burn out? Will they lose effectiveness over time? What happens if a replacement civilian training officer cannot gain credibility within the organization? These are issues that will require time to explore, but the cost benefit over the first few years of this non-traditional concept has been highly favorable, if not profitable. Part of the success is due to the quality of employee selected. All have proved to be highly self-motivated, with a high level of expertise and a strong commitment to department mission and to the firefighters they help protect. Choosing the wrong candidate, especially in the initial stage of the transition, could be disastrous for the organization and the employee.
The recent economic crisis has forced the fire service, as a whole, to re-evaluate how it invests its funding. It will take non-traditional approaches to keep our organizations viable, but this does not mean we must always lower our standards. The use of civilians as professional trainers may be a way to save on costs and yet improve the effectiveness of your training program.
Micheal Despain, M.A., EFO, CFO, MIFireE, has more than 25 years of fire-service experience and currently serves as a deputy chief/training chief with the Fresno (Calif.) Fire Department. He is a certified master instructor within the California State Fire Training system and has served as adjunct faculty for State Center Community College and National University.