As the fire service has evolved, much has been written about the lack of practical experience new members, or even those who have been in their positions awhile, may have. Though in-house opportunities may exist, there are continuing opportunities right across jurisdictional lines.
The professional affiliates of the fire service need to consider if it’s time to develop, adopt and use a formal officer/job-sharing or ride-along program standard. Departments share SOGs, grant narratives, engine specifications and so much more; it’s time to consider sharing our practical experience as well.
This isn’t a new concept. Paramedic students often ride with other paramedics or work in hospitals to get the required practical skills before they can practice. Departments have already developed ride-along programs for students and the general public. The city of Sacramento posts on its website:
The purpose of the Sacramento Fire Department Ride-Along Program is to foster community involvement, understanding, and education by providing an opportunity for the public and city employees to gain first-hand experience of the duties and responsibilities of Fire Department personnel.
The program/standard advocated for development would allow new or inexperienced officers the opportunity to ride with officers in other departments with equivalent responsibilities. A captain in one department may perform the duties of a battalion chief in another. It’s important to match up responsibilities, not just job titles.
To succeed, we must allow time for learning to occur. Reporting for one day or one night shift isn’t enough. This requires a one- or two-week commitment from everyone involved. It’s an important investment in professional development.
Between emergency runs, participants can learn how the visited department conducts daily business, from roll call and checking apparatus to preplans and other assigned duties, that could be adopted by their own departments. The further the departments are apart, both in distance and in operational styles, the more effective the program may be.
A formally developed program outlines the expectations of the departments and the participating officers. Certainly, departments can do this among themselves, but developing a program nationally is a process that sets a standard.
Many departments have informal ride-along programs. Many are not department sanctioned, and if a rider were to be hurt, they wouldn’t be covered by insurance. The department could be found liable.
There are those that do have ride-along policies extended to firefighters. Limited learning takes place; more often it’s for fun and excitement.
Developing a Program/Standard Draft
First, formal responsibilities must be defined—defining responsibilities so departments can match those responsibilities to job titles within their own organizations. From company officers to chief officers, each will have the opportunity, as Sacramento put it, to “gain first-hand experience of the duties and responsibilities of Fire Department officers in other departments and jurisdictions.”
Few matches will be exact, but defining roles based on positions of lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, etc., will allow departments to choose from those with similar responsibilities.
Once responsibilities are defined, a database of participating departments should be developed. This will be difficult because many departments may need to be encouraged to participate. The database and developing responsibilities would have to be created by the National Fire Academy or other professional fire-service affiliates, perhaps with the help of a Fire Act grant.
This database would include a profile of each department. Success is dependent on the needs of the candidates/departments. Remember that the goal is for departments to share officers from both agencies, helping to eliminate one department becoming only a host department and getting nothing in return. A database allows departments to explore options for their officers to participate in. Departments in the database would have also met the requirements of the standard.
The type of information included in the department’s profile would be based on the type of experiences that a department has to offer. An officer from the Midwest in need of wildland-urban interface command experience may have the opportunity to go to California at the height of their season. Someone who needs structure fire command/safety or RIT deployment experience would be able to go to an area with more structure-fire responses.
Once one department has made contact with the other, a memorandum of understanding, or the legal paperwork each department requires, is completed to insure protection for all involved.
The receiving department will assign the riding officer to one officer/one shift’s duty schedule for an agreed-upon timeframe, and if possible, will house the officer as well. It should be noted that the officer is there to learn officer responsibilities, and command operations, not there to do firefighting duties. However, in life or death situations, it’s understood that the officer can be used as needed.
The sponsoring department will cover travel costs and living expenses for the duration. The officer will report to duty in uniform with full protective gear. As noted above, the expectation is that the officer is there to learn officer responsibilities and command operations, performing firefighting duties only in life or death situations.
Obviously, it’s not that simple; much more work needs to go into developing this type of program. Firefighters and officers are sent across their states and the country to colleges, conferences and their local and state fire academies, as well as the National Fire Academy.
Departments pay for education and training. In this program, depending on the type of experience you want your officer to have, the cost of the program may be minimal, but the benefits would be invaluable.
As we look forward toward a loss of institutional knowledge and a lack of practical experience, this may be an option to help solve those problems while seeing other ideas and learning other methods.