I ran an international course in firefighting and during an exercise there was one participant who almost sprained his ankle. He took me aside and talked to me seriously.

There was a difference in floor height between two containers and it was absolutely not ok. If such an injury were to occur in his facility, there was a risk that the training would be banned. Injuries were not allowed to occur during training.

Training should feel dangerous

Of course, we can level the floors, build railings so that you cannot fall, put out cold fires, and put soft, fluffy cushions on hard edges.

It is quite possible to build a safe training environment, but we should certainly not do that. A training environment should be dangerous, or at least it should feel that way.

But before any safety officers get a brain hemorrhage, let me explain. Because there are two big problems with a too-safe attitude towards training.

1. It is not my concern!

“It is someone else’s responsibility to ensure that my training is safe. It is the responsibility of the instructor, manufacturer, or safety officer to ensure this.”

But if I know that something is safe, no matter how wrongly I behave, I will not focus on my safety. If I know that I cannot trip or get too hot, it is faster and easier to stand up when smoke diving in poor visibility.

If I instead know that the next step I take can result in a very nasty fall into the basement, then I will gently crawl forward. No one else will make me safe; it is my responsibility.

2. I got this!

“If I train safe, I will also be safe on real incidents. The risks that are removed during training I will compensate for by good risk assessments on scene.”

But my brain will be even more saturated during real incidents. Risks not dealt with during training, instead, have a high likelihood of being forgotten or mismanaged at real incidents.

My training environment should have the same risks, though with less severe consequences, as the real incident. This way, I am always forced to deal with them while at the same time completing the mission.

Dangerous training kills the cheaters

A very dangerous training building could cause some firefighters to die during the exercise. However, those who survive would become highly competent in dealing with real incidents. They will have learned how to detect and manage risks and also understand that cheating is not a viable option.

No, we should not build killing machines for training.

It's dangerous to train, I promise!

But it would be great if those who trained actually thought it was a killing machine that they were going into. If I don’t listen to the instructor, it’s my last coffee cup.

And it would be great if the instructor actually thought they were the difference between life and death for the students, not just an administrator of training registration.

But you can’t fool people, at least not in the long run. You cannot build a completely safe facility and say that it is dangerous.

With new firefighters it may work for a while before they realize it’s an amusement park. But for experienced firefighters, it’s impossible from the start.

Not too safe, not too dangerous

But we can and should build moderately dangerous training environments where incorrect behaviors have consequences. Sprained ankles, scrapes, red shoulders, and other minor injuries should be possible, but of course not sought after.

As a trainee, you should understand that you need to follow instructions. Otherwise, you will face the consequences of your mistakes.

As an instructor, I need to ensure that trainees are doing the right thing. If they act correctly, they will be safe and effective.

Safety is the byproduct of doing the right thing

Safety should never be the highest priority in training, doing the right thing should be. If we practice doing the right thing in the right way, safety will be a byproduct of that.

Moreover, if everyone knows that it is their own responsibility to do the right thing, otherwise there will be consequences, then the ability to manage risks will be high.

This is what we aim for: skilled firefighters who can handle a risky workplace and still complete the mission.

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