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Current training programs may not prepare firefighters to combat stress

Current training programs may not effectively prepare firefighters for the range of scenarios they are likely to encounter, according to human factors/ergonomics researchers Michael R. Baumann, Carol L. Gohm, and Bryan L. Bonner. In their October 2011 Human Factors article, "Phased Training for High-Reliability Occupations: Live-Fire Exercises for Civilian Firefighters," the authors assess the value of current scenario-based training programs.

Firefighters must make complex decisions and predictions and must perform extreme tasks at a moment's notice. Failure to keep a level head in the face of a dangerous situation may result in disastrous consequences. An effective training program that prepares firefighters to handle unanticipated changes may be the key to maintaining low stress levels and preventing stress-related health issues.

The most common form of training exposes firefighters to one or a very small set of live-fire scenarios designed to reduce stress and encourage calm decision-making skills. But repeated exposure to the same scenario may fail to adequately prepare firefighters for changing situations, as lessons learned in that scenario may not transfer to a different scenario.

In the Baumann et al. study, firefighter trainees performed a variety of drills, first repeating a drill in one type of building (six stories, one room on each floor) and then, in a subsequent training, performing drills in a different type of building (two stories, multiple rooms on each floor). As expected, trainees reported reduced stress and fewer performance problems in subsequent repetitions of one scenario but a reversion to pretraining levels of stress with the new scenario.

"If you learn the scenario, you can predict what will happen in that one scenario, but you can't predict what will happen in situations that look a little different," said Baumann. "If you learn general principles, then you can predict what is going to happen in a wide range of situations."

The authors suggest that trainers should increase the range of scenarios to which firefighters are exposed. Desktop-based simulators are available to supplement live-fire training with a variety of scenarios to enable trainees to learn basic principles, even though such simulators cannot replicate a live-fire environment.

"Repeated high levels of stress are associated with a host of health problems," Baumann said. "In firefighters specifically, the stress has been linked to increased risk of alcohol abuse, cardiovascular disease, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Finding a way to reduce the stress levels is a worthy goal."

Contact: Lois Smith
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

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