Developing a flagship programme

A phone call from a close friend and colleague is the catalyst for this article from Bob Rea QFSM, MBA, the third in his series.

“Bob, I have a job for you! You are the only one I can think of who can bridge the gaps and coordinate the delivery of a suite of training programmes, delivered at our centre for a Middle Eastern cadre of students” I responded, “Flattery will get you everywhere!!” He stated that he needed a programme built to deliver an NFPA 1001 Firefighter programme as the ‘Flagship’ programme. It was the desire of the client to build this to a Pro-Board assessable programme. There was a suite of ten programmes to be delivered over a two-year period, with seventeen programmes in total, for over two hundred students. My career covered all areas of the fire service, Operations, Fire Safety and Training, as well as Urban Search and Rescue Group and Specialist Operations Group, so I was ideally suited to the role of Programme Manager, as I am versed in the content of all the programmes for delivery. He was adamant about one thing, saying ,“One restriction is, you are not allowed to teach, as the client wants the students to learn the USA way and not the British way”. He knows me too well!

The first challenge I had, was that this request was at the end of covid lockdowns and there were still travel restrictions on entry to the USA, so I had to build everything remotely, whilst working on securing permission to enter the USA for the June 2021 start of delivery. Thank goodness for technology, as without the aid of video conference calls, building my knowledge of how a firefighter programme is delivered in the USA would have been very difficult. As it was, the time difference meant many late evenings and nights to coordinate calls and discussions. The divide of the Atlantic Ocean also highlighted the climate differences, as my first of these calls, saw me sat wrapped up against the cold (as we had a snow fall, which was still on the ground outside) and one of my chosen advisors, (as we had worked together before on several large scale exercises at the Georgia based Disaster Management centre and are part of the ‘Global Fire Service Family’) sat in his boat, shirtless fishing in bright blue skies! We talked about how he had run programmes before, he stated that he had used the IFSTA manuals and just followed the chapters, I consulted with several other USA fire service trainers that I knew and valued their input. I spent time reviewing this information and felt that the flow did not support a sequential development pathway, especially for students who would be learning via sequential translation.

I asked the questions about the working day duration and the days of the week the programme would run over, knowing that different regions have differing working weeks. The week was to be the Western Week and duration of training was 0800 to 1700 daily, as students studying in a different country were expected to adopt the working week of the country of delivery. As someone who likes structure, I built a twelve-week development programme timetable, lesson plans and assessments (so the delivery would follow my vision, blending the IFSTA curriculum with the UK Fire Service Training Manual flow), being mindful of the development flow and needs of the students. Sharing my vision with the lead deliverers I had selected, they agreed that this was an innovative but logical programme, building the knowledge, skills and understanding of the students in a progressively more challenging manner. Building their confidence and competence continually, with opportunities to employ the skills in realistic simulated environments. The client had the programme timetable shared with them to ensure they were happy with it, which they were.

Working with the Lead Deliverers, we identified and engaged associate tutors to assist in the delivery of the Firefighter programme and other teams to deliver the other programmes as they were developed. Building a cultural brief so that they were aware of the student needs, which would ensure that the students were able to take the most from the learning opportunities and prevent any potential issues.

Working on my access to the USA, I finally received special approval to enter, as I was supporting a programme of national significance. I booked flights and travelled, arriving on the Thursday evening before the first delivery started in the Monday. Travel was not without challenge, standing in line to check in, a duty operative separated me out for further questioning. I thought I had everything in order, but they advised me I had the wrong visa, but on this occasion they would let me travel. Relief flooded through and I hurried through security and into departures, readying myself for a smooth and uneventful fifteen hour journey via Philadelphia to Atlanta. Well, I was mistaken, on arrival at immigration in Philadelphia, I greeted the immigration officer and explained the purpose of my visit. He seemed a little perplexed and called for assistance, which saw me taken aside and questioned further. A nervous wait in the segregated area, to be told by a senior immigration officer, they would let me in on this occasion for the six months I was allowed on the visa I had been granted to enter the USA, but I then had to outside the USA for six months and if I tried to come back before then, I would be put on a plane back to the UK.

I arrived at the training venue and met with the team for the Firefighter delivery, both tutors and interpreters, establishing my expectations of us working as one team for the development of the students. Explaining that I like to know everything that occurs, so that I can assist in the management of any issues that might occur, I was here to support them.

Cultural differences are a challenge, as is getting the students to recognise that training is designed to create ‘Muscle Memory’, so that when the students are in the stress of the operational incident environment, they default to the safe actions to resolve the incident.

This involves all aspects of the programme, down to the wearing of PPE. With the incidence of firefighter cancers globally causing concern, I saw this programme as having the opportunity establish behaviours which would hopefully be cascaded by the students to their work colleagues on return and reduce their potential to experience a cancer later in life. I set my stall early on the wearing of PPE during training, but encountered the clash of cultures, between my UK (Pink and Fluffy Health and Safety), USA and Middle Eastern acceptance of risk. I tried to build the development of Risk Awareness and educate Risk Appetite which differ in each region. I was challenged by the students as to why they had to wear Firefighting PPE when ‘Making Up’ (placing the equipment back on the fire appliance), as the weather was hot. I explained that whilst this was training, we had to establish ‘good practice’ and by having the PPE on, this prevented under clothing becoming contaminated by the products of the fire and potentially being absorbed into their skin.

Another clash of cultures came during the Breathing Apparatus phase, the USA Fire Services tend to search buildings mainly on their knees, crawling to keep low and out of the heat barrier and in potentially clearer visibility. During this phase the students were finding the activity particularly hard and painful, to the point where they were beginning to complain and ask to cease training. I now saw an opportunity to keep them engaged (and bring in some UK skills) and showed them one of the UK methods for moving in limited lighting and visibility conditions, the Breathing Apparatus Shuffle. A coordinated sweeping movement of arms and legs, to feel the ground and surrounding conditions. Having practiced this method for over thirty years, I performed it with grace and elegance, so the tutors and students and tutors nicknamed it the ‘Bob Ballet’. The students engaged in typical fire service humour and teased each other in good humour, while developing this additional skill, but more importantly this kept them learning and gave them another skill to use when appropriate.

Part of the programme involved ‘Real Fire’ internal firefighting scenarios, which is a significant change for the students, but one that they relished. The programme built their knowledge of fire growth and fire behaviour through fire development observation and practical application sessions. Developing fire condition awareness, suppression and atmosphere control skills to allow them to enter internally to conduct search and rescue and fire control.

This was done my building student skills and confidence sequentially, from clear visibility, limited lighting, cosmetic/synthetic smoke, to live fire conditions. The challenge here was always keeping the students safe, especially when not all fully understood English. We developed a safe system of work by developing the knowledge, skills and understanding of some of the interpreters to enter the compartments along with the safety crews and students to communicate messages, especially ones of safety to the students. This worked well and the students enjoyed this element of the programme.

This has been a short precis of the programme and some of the challenges encountered, there are many more and I  intend to share these in future articles along with the learning for both sides.

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