Rookie Schoool- the place where you learn The Basics. Be quiet, listen, and LEARN!

Many firefighters just don’t appreciate learning opportunities or recognize when learning opportunities present themselves. Recently, I thought about several examples I witnessed during “rookie schools” around the country. Rookie school, or Basic Fire School, is where you are taught “The Basics” and are expected to learn “The Basics” before applying them on the job.

A tremendous amount of information is thrown at students in just a few weeks; students are stressed and challenged to learn the materials and apply the newly found knowledge, skills, and abilities on the training ground and in the burn building. This initial training period is where some students capitalize on opportunities, learn from the opportunities, and graduate; other students never recognize the learning opportunities and are dismissed from the program.

Student protective clothing at rookie school is ready for use. Photo by author,

I’m fortunate to be able to travel our country, interact with many emergency services members, and learn something from every class I teach. While teaching or speaking at events, I’ve been able to observe many training ground evolutions and listen to stories from both students and other school instructors (many times over a frothy adult beverage). Unfortunately, some students impede learning for both themselves and others. Here are some of my more notable “step back and think it through” rookie school examples from around the country:

Example #1: In the east, several municipalities and a county coordinate a training facility and run “rookie” schools using instructors from the various organizations. Over the course of several days, I was able to watch how the instructors from different organizations worked together to transfer knowledge to students. One day, the chiefs of departments from the various organizations came to the academy to introduce themselves to their newest employees and explain each department’s method of operations. The chiefs were in the classroom, ready to talk with the students; the students were finishing a break period and were returning to the classroom. Several students were lagging behind; an instructor or two offered “encouragement” to pick up the pace and get back to class, as the chiefs’ time was valuable. At least one student commented “Who do those guys think they are (the fire chiefs)? Why should I act fast for them?”

I think the lead instructor had a stroke! The fire chief is the department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and has earned respect. Students ARE expected to pick up the pace and get their backsides in the seats. A fire chief’s time is very valuable and shouldn’t be wasted waiting for students to get back into a classroom. Listen up, grasshopper: if you didn’t know the fire department was a paramilitary organization and folks with rank get respect, I’m sure you know it now.

Example #2: Out in a western state, a student in rookie school barreled into the parking lot. In the pouring rain, he grabbed his turnout gear from the open bed of his truck and sprinted for the classroom (dropping portions along the way), trying to get into class before being marked “tardy”. As he crashed into his seat, I noticed he wouldn’t pass inspection at my old house. His shirt was not tucked, badge was missing, and one pant leg was stuffed into a boot. Students sitting near him were fazed by neither his lateness nor appearance; I sensed the student was perpetually late and unorganized. I noticed the lead instructor nervously looking my way and tell him to “handle his business”. I don’t expect any special treatment as a guest instructor; I’m there just as the other instructors are: to pass on knowledge, skills, and abilities. After the lead instructor pulls the student aside and “encourages” him to get organized, locate his PPE lost along the way, and work to get himself in a presentable state, we begin the day’s course material.

Later, I learn the student had great difficulties getting to class on time and poorly cared for his personal protective equipment. Besides pulling it from the back of the truck in the pouring rain in my presence, I was told one morning he pulled his gear out of the truck with the boots full of snow and his coat frozen! The lead instructor told me the student was heading out the door, the staff unable to assist him with correcting his horrible habits. Fortunately for you and I, this former student will not put you and I at risk because of his slovenly ways.

Example #3 finds us back on the east coast. A firefighter candidate spoke with me during a break. I learned he recently completed NFPA Firefighter II training with his volunteer department and was required to go back through basic fire training when he hired into the fire department. He was not happy having to go back through basic school. I can understand his unhappiness with seeing the program twice in eighteen months; no one wants to repeat introductory training.

However….. I don’t think the gentlemen understood the tremendous value provided by the ability to repeat rookie school within months of his initial completion date. Immediately, I pictured the student’s brain as a Swiss cheese, mostly there, but full of holes. Those holes represented the knowledge, skills, and abilities he missed during his initial class. The value for him is the opportunity to go through rookie school a second time and fill in the holes in his cheese (brain). The opportunity he has places him head and shoulders above the other students. As the other students see the material for the first time and attempt to capture the information, our bummed out student has the opportunity to refine current skills and build new skills with information missed during his first completion of school. This guy should graduate first in his class and begin laying the foundation for his firefighting career.

It’s all about opportunities! Always take advantage of an opportunity. Always!

2 Comments

  • anchorpoint1 says:

    Good examples.
    When I’m doing my time at the fire academy I make sure to let the students know that the probie school does not exist in a vacuum. 3/4 of our academy staff go back to their respective firehouses when the class is over.
    We also get constantly bombarded with questions about the recruits during and after the school. Most of what happens there stays there. But many times what the recruits do during their off time gets back to us.
    As a student of the fire service you cannot say “I’ve done this before” you must look for new information if you want to be better at your job.

  • RickyBobby says:

    A lot of times I think our pride gets in the way of trying to learn. For example, I can’t tell you how many guys disappeared on drill night during the summer months when we were hose testing. Ugh! I can hear the groans now as I type this. I always try to learn something from even the most tedious tasks because repetitive practice leads to muscle memory and practice makes perfect. Train, train, train! You can learn from mistakes made in training. On the scene is not the time to practice.

    Sometimes those habits are hard to break, or so ingrained you don’t even realize it. By that I mean our dress, and conduct even as “civilians”. People can tell you’re a firefighter because you carry yourself in a certain manner. You don’t have to wear anything with your patch on it for them to see you’re a firefighter. That comes from pride in your job, and pride in yourself.

    Just my two cents…

    RB

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