Avoiding Training Accidents, It’s All About Discipline

Coach Wooden Statue

Legendary Coach John Wooden

“You discipline those under your supervision to correct, to help, to improve — not to punish.” John Wooden, Legendary College Basketball Coach

As I wrote in last month’s newsletter, public safety recruit hiring seems to be on the upswing with police and fire departments nationally reporting more job openings, record numbers of applicants, and more academy classes. Concurrent with this trend is a particularly disturbing one – an apparent increase in the number of training-related accidents. Over the past 6 months it seems the number of training-related accidents is rapidly rising. If (as I perceive it) training has become more dangerous than in the past, then the big question is why? Were prior accidents unreported or under-reported? Given the 24/7 news cycle and increased reliance on social media, are accidents (even minor ones) taking on more scrutiny? Or, are we seeing a decline in discipline that’s contributing to an actual increase in accidents?

Although training-related injuries and deaths due to underlying health issues such as heart conditions are nonetheless tragic, I have been focusing in particular on training accidents and deaths not associated with health issues. The following links provide a reference to some of these:

Clearly, many training-related accidents can be attributed to a lack of discipline. This breakdown in discipline can take place at the instructor level, at the student level, or at both levels. It’s important to understand how and why those breakdowns occur. A colleague recently told me that, in his opinion, there are too many cases of “television/movie” inspired instructors. What he meant by that phrase is that the instructors believe “faster is better, stronger is superior, and toughness is admired.” This attitude (and lack of discipline) can result in a convoluted badge of machismo to be the best – at the cost of safety. Another theory is that instructors are working and training in a new era; due to budget cuts, and due to the need to get a backlog of recruits trained and out on the street, they are simply moving too fast. It’s possible that instructors are somehow encouraged to cut corners to reduce costs or get the job done more quickly. In either case, the attitude of safety is undermined, creating an environment where an accident is more likely to occur.

In order to understand how discipline relates to learning, it’s important to understand how first responders learn and assimilate information.[1][2]

    • Public safety workers are dynamic assimilators: They learn best when allowed to actively participate, practice and repeat codified sequences of behavior, as opposed to strict book learning. They are hands-on learners.
    • Public safety workers are communication-oriented learners: 1) Public safety work requires instant knowledge transmission and reception; 2) The culture of public safety is that of a large family.
    • Public safety workers are “prioritizers:” They focus their attention upon self survival, search, rescue and safety of incident victims, and then the protection of properties.
    • Public safety workers are follower/leaders: They respond to authority and expertise of their superiors and those who have lived the skills they wish to learn. Through this they gain confidence and leadership skills.
    • Public safety workers learn from peers better than unknown teachers: They view their co-workers as equals. They are “brothers and sisters,” not fellow employees. Therefore, to be most effective, the instructors must also be public safety workers who have been “in the trenches.”
    • Public safety workers are mindful of learning conscientiously: They view their education as important to themselves and the survival of the communities they serve.
    • Public safety workers prefer actual scenarios to abstract training: As hands-on learners, they don’t respond well to theory or hypothetical example. As dynamic learners, they respond best to actual critical incident scenarios. Public safety workers thrive on real life situations. They live for the “adrenaline rush” of being on a scene and responding to a crisis. So, the training must somehow re-create incident scenes to be effective.

Creating and maintaining a training environment that supports these concepts will also help support discipline among both instructor and student.

One of the most important aspects of the learning process is the opportunity for a new recruit (or seasoned veteran) to apply a newly-learned skill or to reinforce old ones. This is not to say that experience isn’t a great teacher – but learning through repetitive practice allows students (probie or veteran) to develop their cognitive skills to an autonomous level through repeated rehearsal. Having spoken to many police and firefighters, there’s always a recurring theme: “When stress, adrenaline, or disorientation occurred, I fell back on the lessons learned in training; in other words my training kicked in.” In the service of public safety, “On The Job Training” (OTJ) is not acceptable without mastery of job task fundamentals.

In the words of Vince Lombardi, one of football’s most accomplished and respected coaches, “Excellence is Achieved in the Mastery of Fundamentals.” Coach Lombardi Statue

Coach Lombardi trained his athletes for consistent performance, rather than one-time stunning plays. It takes discipline to master fundamentals and to perform consistently. Most importantly, in the world of public safety training, it takes discipline to do so safely.


[1]      Bullets are from the Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/OEMS/Files_page/symposium/2010Presentations/OPE-921.pdf