Bridging the culture gap in firefighter training

June 14, 2024

Bob Rea, Director and Lead facilitator – BR Training Solutions Ltd, considers the challenges of firefighter training programme design and delivery involving different cultures

I have long held the view that the Fire and Rescue Services are a Global Family as we respect and value each other and the unspoken bond we hold.

When I received a call from a longstanding friend and colleague saying: “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 programs at our centre for a Middle Eastern cadre of students,”.

I responded, “Flattery will get you everywhere!” and readily accepted the contract offer.

I have a long-standing relationship with this Disaster Management venue, where I have assisted in the design of the facility and providing guidance and advice on management, strategy, safety and environmental protection.

My friend and I discussed the challenge, to design, manage and implement a comprehensive NFPA 1001 Firefighter program as the ‘Flagship’ course of a suite of ten NFPA programs, which were to be delivered over two years, amounting to seventeen programs for over two hundred students.

Given my experience from my Fire Service career and my role at the UK Fire Service College—where I managed the Urban Search and Rescue Group and Specialist Operations Group, coordinating both staff and program delivery—I was ideally suited for the role of Program Manager.

However, there was a caveat that my friend was a pains to explain: “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! He also knew that I would not be able to fully comply with this, especially around safety.

Well, the British are known for being ‘Safety Conscious’ (it is joked in the Fire Service Community that we wrap ourselves in ‘Cotton Wool and then Bubble Wrap’ and we are seen as ‘Pink and Fluffy’ with regards to safety) and this is a challenge when working with different cultures.

Cultural challenges in training programs

Hence began the challenge of managing three differing cultures and their expectations of a training programme and how it would be delivered.

It was essential that I understood the Western and Eastern work weeks (as the students were to be from the Middle East) and USA daily training schedule (0800 to 1700).

From this I designed a twelve-week development program, creating detailed lesson plans, assessments, exercise briefs and risk assessments.

My aim was to blend the IFSTA curriculum with the UK Fire Service Training Manual, ensuring a progressive development flow tailored to the students’ needs.

The lead deliverers, selected for their expertise, agreed that this innovative structure would build the students’ confidence and competence through a sequential development programme, culminating in them applying their knowledge, skill and understanding through experiential learning in realistic simulations, including ‘Live Fire’ scenarios.

With the program timetable approved by the client, I identified and engaged associate tutors and other delivery team members (including dedicated interpreters, which created another challenge with Health and Safety management as these are not from the emergency service field) to assist in delivering the programs.

We developed a cultural brief to ensure the tutors were aware of the students’ needs, maximising the learning experience, mitigating potential issues and highlighting the difference in the approach to risk management.

Implementing safety standards

At the training venue, I met with the team and set clear expectations for teamwork and management of any issues that might arise.

Cultural differences, particularly regarding risk awareness and training practices which posed significant challenges.

For instance, students initially resisted wearing full PPE during ‘Making Up’ due to the heat.

I explained the importance of establishing ‘Good Practice’ to prevent contamination from fire residues, emphasizing long-term health benefits.

One key element that I stressed to the delivery team was the need for safety to be paramount.

To support this, I presented the ‘Four Levels of Competence Model’ developed by Noel Burch in the 1970’s (Elogueil, 2021).

To demonstrate this model, I use an image of a staircase to show the elevation of a person’s competence and apply this to people’s learning and development journey, not only in knowledge and skills development, but in their understanding of risk and risk mitigation.

The levels are:

  1. unconscious incompetence
  2. conscious incompetence
  3. conscious competence
  4. unconscious competence

I then discussed the difference in risk awareness, risk appetite and  risk acceptance.

I explained how when using the four levels model, it is possible to see how a person’s risk awareness and acceptance will change with their experience and development.

Risk appetite is however a significant challenge and can be seen as culturally driven, by individuals, organisations and nations.

It is also important to recognise that all cultures have their own inherent unconscious bias’s, which subconsciously affect our perceptions and approach to hazards and risks.

This combined with the three differing (but with significant similarities) Health and Safety bodies, including the UK Health and Safety Executive, USA Occupational Safety and Health Administration and specific countries Labour Laws, required a flexible and pragmatic approach to the adoption of ‘Best Practice’ to set the expected performance Health and Safety standards of application.

One of the most influential parts of a training programme is the developing and imbedding of ‘Good Habits’.

With high hazard environments that firefighters are required to operate in and the impact of firefighter exposures to carcinogens producing high levels of cancers in firefighters.

The potential to reduce these by developing good behaviours and habits at the earliest point of a firefighter’s career is not to be underestimated and the potential reduction of the impact on our global family.

There is a theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, so implementing ‘Good Behaviours’ early in training helps ensure that our students commence their risk management journey early and learn to protect themselves and develop ‘Good Habits’ to sustain them in their careers.

Long-term health implications

A significant aspect of the training was ensuring that students adhered to strict health and safety standards, particularly regarding the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

One significant challenge was post an exercise, when students were required to ‘Make Up’ (make ready for redeployment and return the equipment used to the Fire Appliance), they wanted to ‘Dress Down’ (remove their firefighting clothing) to be more comfortable, as the weather was hot.

I emphasised the need to always wear appropriate PPE during firefighting activities, which includes the ‘Make Up’ phase.

The students and tutors were used to dressing down during the ‘Make Up’ phase, which is not the case in the UK when contaminated equipment is being handled.

I explained the rationale behind this, as not to wear firefighting uniform exposed the undergarments to contaminants, which would remain against their skin and allow absorption of the contaminants.

We robustly discussed this and I insisted that this was non-negotiable due to the high risk of cancer among firefighters from exposure to hazardous materials.

Explaining the long-term health implications of exposure to toxic substances found in fire residues, I emphasised that wearing PPE consistently was not just a procedural formality but a critical health safeguard.

This discussion was an extremely long but essential one, with the students reluctantly agreeing in the end.

My goal was to develop habits that would protect them from potential carcinogens, thereby reducing the likelihood of cancer and other health issues later in their careers.

We also implemented a cleaning regime for the firefighting uniform, so that any residues from the ‘Live Fire’ training and scenarios were mitigated in line with manufacturer’s directions.

Students were part of this process to again reinforce the need to clean and service firefighting uniform regularly.

In the UK firefighters are issued with at least two complete sets of firefighting uniform so they can send the used/contaminated one for cleaning.

Another element we educated the students was the ‘Shower Within the Hour’ principle to help reduce skin contamination and the risks of absorption of the contaminants.

There are many more examples of the cross-culture challenges and pragmatic applications to Health and Safety and continuation of learning, including Self Contained Breathing Apparatus training, Building Entry, Hazardous Materials and Vehicle Extrication.

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.

I gained the nickname of ‘Safety Bob’ through my attitude to safety in training, but my objectives are to protect individuals, organisations and the environment for the short, medium and long term.

This program was a remarkable journey, fraught with challenges but rich in learning experiences for both students and trainers.

The cross-cultural exchange and the blend of UK and USA firefighting techniques enriched the training program, providing students with a comprehensive skill set.

The emphasis on health and safety throughout the training ensured that students not only gained technical proficiency but also internalised critical safety practices that will protect them throughout their careers.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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