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February 25, 2003

So you want to be af fire instructor
By: Lt. Jake Rixner
The question comes up during almost every fire class I teach, “How do I become a fire instructor?”  Some of the students asking the question are so young, it is hard to get my point across without hurting feelings or more importantly, dampening their enthusiasm.

What are the secrets of good teachers?  How can you contribute more to your fire company? When should you back off from teaching firefighters?

The most important point of being a fire service instructor is being a master of the subject you intend to teach. During my earlier years, I was assigned to Engine Company 5 in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. Each of the eight years I was there, we were the busiest engine company in the city.  There was a waiting list of 30 people who wanted to get into the company. In other words, it was an elite unit with highly motivated people who loved going to fires, putting them out, and saving lives.  

During this period of time, the City came up with a career development plan that required going to state, federal, and local community college classes to advance.  During many of these mandatory classes, it was obvious that many of the instructors teaching these classes had far less practical experience than those of us who worked for Richmond. 

Some taught outdated or false information.  They used words like “always” and “never” which in the streets, are two words that will come back to haunt you on the fire ground.  Nothing does more damage to the creditability of the instructor than not knowing the subject.  On the positive side, I made up my mind that if I was ever blessed with a class full of students, I would make the learning experience one they would never forget.
We are all a product of our experiences.   The things we have done and learned in the past shape our views and beliefs.  We must inventory these assets and utilize them for the good of the fire service. A couple of months ago, I was in the State fire training office in Richmond, Virginia, when a phone call came in from the Roanoke office and they asked me to teach a class on water rescue. Although this would mean a weekend away with all expenses paid, I declined.  I am a basic bread & butter fire instructor. I have no passion for water rescue; therefore I knew that I wouldn’t do a good job teaching the class. 
Capt. Richard Emerson, retired, Richmond Bureau of Fire, Engine Co. 5, the first Captain and a mentor of the author.

My true passion is in engine & truck company evolutions and honing the skills to develop a great team at the company level. That’s the real level that the work of our business gets done.

Building construction is another subject that receives far to little attention in most fire training programs.  As Frank Brannigan says, “The building is your enemy, know your enemy.”  Many firefighters work construction as a side job and these people are assets for training classes.  If you know how buildings are put together, you can predict how they will come apart during a fire. One of the most important things anyone riding the officer’s seat of a fire truck should know is building construction, as well as the unique buildings in your area.

Know your business. If you understand and have done the things you are teaching, then you can add a personal side to the book knowledge. A good “war story” helps to illustrate what you are teaching, however don’t rely entirely on war stories to teach the subject matter.  Too many instructors think that one good story deserves another.  Remember the old adage, “all things in moderation.”  Use your “war stories” and personal experiences to reinforce and illustrate the important points in your lecture.
Early in my career, I noticed that some firefighters told excellent tales at the kitchen table, tales of heroic deeds. However, many of these same guys exhibited questionable performance on the fireground. I’ve found that it is usually the quiet guy in the corner with his nose stuck in a book or newspaper who performs best on the fireground.  It’s important to learn who you can trust in a burning building, and stick with him.  He will teach you more than you ever thought possible. Some folks call these people mentors. 
Jake Rixner, and one of his mentors, Tom Brennan

If you’re lucky, you will have several during your career, and perhaps one day, you can continue this cycle by being a mentor to someone else.  Mentors illustrate the fact that learning by doing is much more effective than learning by listening. A good mentor can be one of the most valuable instructors a firefighter ever has.

An effective instructor is a teacher who has walked the walk (not just talked the talk.) He balances the use of life-experiences in conjunction with necessary and important book knowledge to help create a team of well-trained, motivated, and competent firefighters that can handle almost anything the “enemy” throws at them.  Good luck on your journey, if you want to teach someday, transfer to a busy unit in your department that also has great leadership.

About the author 
Jake Rixner is a fire Lieutenant with 20 years service in the Richmond, Virginia Fire Department. He previously worked as a firefighter in Washington DC. His fire service career started as a volunteer in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1978 at Company #5 (the busiest in Alleghany County).  He has had articles featured in Fire Engineering Magazine and has instructed at the FDIC. He is an instructor in Virginia. Lt. Rixner holds an associate's degree in Fire Science. Lt. Rixner still volunteers in Kentland in Prince Georges County, MD.