My intention when setting up this blog was to blog about current and future issues, on this occasion though I’d like to reminisce a little and revisit the days of LFs and SubOs practical exams which took place as part of the old Fire Services Examination Board regime. I’ve had the opportunity to be a ‘drilling crew’, a candidate and an examiner in my time so my perspective is from all sides.
I apologise in advance to those who have never had to endure this process, it’s one of those where you kind of had to be there. Bear with me, and share in the pain.
Perhaps the easiest job of all was to be the crew that the potential junior officer was tasked with drilling. The range of drills upon which the candidate could be examined was relatively limited, but there were those that were easier than others. Little was at stake for the crew other than being under the eye of a senior officer if everything went wrong – all of the pressure was on the candidate. Of course, on occasion the candidate may have been someone that the crew liked and respected, on other occasions the opposite may be true, and the opportunity for ‘sport’ arose. The nomination of crews came around annually, and if you were on days the chances were you would get nominated for a half day session of drill. I don’t know anyone that particularly enjoyed doing it, but there was also the chance for someone to have a bit of ‘fun’ with a candidate who, for whatever reason, just didn’t have the presence that they needed. The thing is, it was almost as much of a problem for the candidate if the drill went perfectly as it was if things went wrong. An ideal drill (for the candidate) gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to impose control and to demonstrate their knowledge of the drill or scenario in doing so, a few errors were therefore welcomed. A perfect drill left little option but to congratulate the crew on a job well done, a drill that went to bits left the candidate with a nightmare as they couldn’t leave the yard until it was sorted out and the crew were aware of the error of their ways.
Being the candidate was, of course, the worse role on the day. If you had done your preparation properly you had been drilling your own watch (or a collection of other candidates) for some time, and the prospect of putting them (and yourself) through the same again next year was not one to relish. All of the examinable drills required committing to memory, you had to have your ‘spiel’ practised and rehearsed, and your kit needed to be perfect. Throw in a healthy dose of nerves, a seemingly mile long walk across the yard to meet the examiner (no tick tocking) and the first view of the crew that you needed to drill and it’s a wonder that anyone CHOSE to do these exams, but needs must so we got on with it. That moment when you got the card telling you what drill you were required to supervise was either a complete surprise or a predictable and reassuring moment depending upon whether you had the chance to see others drilling at the same drill station, and/or how bored the examiners were and how much they wanted to see something new.
“My name is Fireman Walton (I was back then) I am here today to take the second part of my Leading Firemans Examination. You are here to take part in drill. The purpose of drill is to ensure familiarity…..there are 4 words of command ‘rest’, ‘still’, ‘stand from under’ and ‘head to building’….does anyone have any questions?” Everyone had a variant on the standard ‘spiel’ but no one chose to stray too far away from the tried and tested routine, innovation was largely frowned upon, this was a performance and most people knew, and got marked against, the script. Numbering off the crew came next, usually a process of grown adults counting from 1 up to 4, and then turning to their right. Achieved by most, failed by a few, and often the first chance for the candidate to assert their faux authority by making them do it again if neither fast enough or loud enough. A calculated gamble that probably tested command skills more than intended in choosing which crew to tear into, and which one to humour in case things got worse – a real lesson in personnel management! Then the fateful ‘get to work’ , at which point the (so far) carefully controlled crew would bomb burst to their various tasks, and the candidate had to be right on their mettle. Where to stand was all important, the ideal vantage point allowed you to see everyone without moving and was out of the way of water, ladders and hose. Dilemmas such as whether to always shout your commands, whether to close up for tasks such as the tying of knots, whether to offer words of encouragement and the gamble of whether a tactfully deployed ‘rest’ would impress the examiners were all to be decided on the day. Assuming no disasters, a few words of thanks, some observations which would ‘help them to be better next time’, and the candidate was hurtling towards the ‘fall out’ for the crew. All that was left was to report back to the examiners (remembering to go to the ‘lead’ one of the two), report a successful completion, and hand the drill card back and not walk off with it. Then a march back to area designated for candidates to assemble and the first part of the exam was over.
The second part of the exam tested the instructional ability of the candidate either in terms of describing a piece of equipment and it’s uses and limitations, or in the latter iterations of the Sub Os examinations to describe a risk site and devise an operational plan. I’ll describe this part of the exam from the perspective of the examiner. As a candidate though the task was simple enough once the items of equipment had been announced prior to the exam season. Find someone else who had given the same lecture, change the presentation to give it your own spin, and practice your timing so as not to to run out of time, or lose marks for finishing early. Again, sticking to the script was the order of the day.
So, what of the examiners, what was it like from their end? In the West Midlands we became the regional examining centre, and a week of practical exams was needed to meet the demand. Whilst some choice was available as to what you did, influence over the senior examiner was usually only achieved by the long serving examiners, the rest of us generally had a morning inside doing instructional technique and an afternoon on the yard, or vice versa. If it was raining (or snowing) then us newer examiners generally copped for more yard than inside. Your partner for the day was important – who was to be the lead, were you marking as you went or at the end, and which of the drills available for your drill station would you give to the candidate? First task was to wrap up warm for a cold day, the wind could whistle across the yard and there was nowhere to shelter once the drills were underway. Next identify the crew who would work with you during the session. The best approach involved a touch of humour, a request for them to take it seriously, and an unsaid understanding that failure would follow them back to their station and their Station Commander. Regardless of the age or experience of the candidate the crew always had the upper hand from the outset. The role of the examiner was to ensure that each and every candidate got a fair crack of the whip. Experience generally bought with it an ability to spot developing problems long before the candidate, who was of course pumped full of adrenalin and nerves. Watching the inevitable unfold was often painful, sometimes funny, and almost always spotted before the candidate. The need for an examiner to intervene was fatal for the candidate, but an important safety role was held by the examiners and only deployed in extreme circumstances.
As the candidate marched out the chosen examiner would meet them and take a salute. How up close and personal would the candidate get before they barked out their name? Early signs of nerves could often be calmed with a few reassuring words, and the candidate who was ‘winging it’ could be spotted a mile off. Read the card out to them, check that they understood it, ask if they had any questions and off they went – all on their own! At the time of being an examiner I was also the head of the recruit training team and spent many days examining the practical abilities of a succession of recruits, those were the days of 3 overlapping courses with 30 people on each. My eye was fairly well tuned to the intricacies of basic drills, my boredom threshold was quite high (it came with the job) and it was often the case that you would end up shaking your head at the inability of an (apparently) experienced crew to carry out some of the most basic of tasks.
I think everyone has their funny stories about these drill scenarios, I’d love to hear some of them. I often had to laugh at the complete inability of the operational crew to count, number off and turn the correct way. Not an important skill once you were riding a fire engine for real, but the fact that everyone had a vague idea and an imperfect recollection of how to do it made for a few funny moments.
The whole boredom threshold challenge was taken to a new level as we moved to the classroom for the instructional ability element of the exam. I make no apology for saying that it was boring, it was boring to examine and it was difficult as a candidate to talk in any inspiring way about a lowering line for 20 minutes. Part of the challenge was to try and spot the difference between the various presentations that appeared in front of you. Everyone accepted that there was only so much information that existed about some of the items of equipment, and of course it was shared around, but the least a candidate could do was to make an original presentation out of the information that they had. The evolution of the SubOs examination which introduced the risk information and operational plan element was a godsend, new presentations and a real relevance to the role had an important value, unfortunately they came too close to the end of the lifespan of the exams.
Looking back the exams had their critics, and they were flawed, but they were not wrong in my mind. The abilities and skills that the candidate was required to demonstrate in a pressurised environment was a useful test of ability. The knowledge of basic drill and equipment handling underpins all practical work in our service, and is as important now as it was then. Where the practical exams failed was their detachment from reality. Take the same principle and put it into a simulated operational environment (as was the case to some extent with the SubOs) , and I think that there is role going forward as we seek to test command skills and assure ourselves of an individual’s competence to command. Being able to impart information to others is also a key skill of our managers and commanders, maybe ‘sit and listen to me’ lectures are not the way to do this, but I would love to see how innovative and creative individuals could harness new technology to deliver information to others.
For the avoidance of any doubt, practical exams are not about to be reintroduced, but there was an element of us as a sector throwing out a baby with the bath water. The challenge of replacing reduced incident activity and reduced on the job experience and learning, with something meaningful and suitably challenging, yet simulated, is one of the key tasks for the coming years. Our ability to prepare commanders to lead with competence in what will be increasingly rare critical incidents is something that we need to get right, really right, and it’s not an easy thing to do.