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Failure is an Option

I have been a technical instructor for more than 20 years. Through the years, we have developed the “next best” matrix for training at least five times. Have a structured class, testing is the key to learning, spend more time in the classroom, spend more time on the training ground…I’ve heard them all.

As an instructor, I have developed my own concept how to deliver technical training to the typical type-A go-getter we see in the rescue industry. Failure…You read that right; FAILURE! Now I don’t have education initials after my name like PhD, but I do have pretty good observation skills; frankly, the end results don’t lie.

To be clear, we still follow the Tell, Show, Execute formula of training. That is, we verbally deliver the material, the instructor shows the student how to execute the skill, and finally, the student executes the skill. For the past two years, we have also instituted a new rule during the “real-world” scenario’s given to students in our classes; we let them fail. How many times during a class has an instructor time and again stopped you in mid-drill to correct a minor detail that wasn’t picture perfect? Or perhaps you didn’t tie a knot the instructor “preferred”? Our primary rule during scenario training: Do not let a student injure another themselves or a classmate, but all them to make mistakes.

Why this mindset? The human brain is very complicated. How the brain learns, executes tasks and behaves under stress is not only very interesting (I would encourage any emergency responder to research these topics), but very important for an instructor to understand.

Have you ever had a dream where you are falling? Reflect back on that dream. In that dream have you ever actually hit the ground or have you woken up at the moment of impact? For those of you who always wake up, research would suggest that the reason you wake is because your brain has never learned what it is like to hit the ground as a result of a significant fall. Without that physical experience, the brain cannot project the experience in a dream. In a nut shell, it has not learned that response. If you do hit the ground in your dream, there is a good chance that you have had a significant fall and therefore, your brain has learned the response.

One can apply that same logic to the training ground. If you are constantly shown the correct way to execute a rescue, how can your brain learn to 1) identify when something is wrong, and 2) how to fix what is wrong to make it right. Many type-A personality students understand the importance of failure. When we conduct training for military special missions units, it is not uncommon for a student to identify all the ways they can FAIL, before they ever feel they have mastered the skill. And frankly it shows. We found these students to have more confidence in their decision making, the ability to fix problems within the system, and the very important capability of thinking outside the box to solve the mission puzzle.

Vice-versa, we can also observe the effects of not allowing students to fail. During rope rescue training, we like to change the training venue for the one of the last two days of the class. Why? Students become jaded with success as they continue to perform rescue tasks from the same platform such as a training tower or parking garage. Move those students to a new or entirely different environment and many times they are lost and confused. During a class were we moved from the urban environment to the woods, a student couldn’t figure out how to build an anchor because, “This tree is much larger around than the pipes on the tower.” The student had grown so accustomed to using a blue webbing, it was completely foreign to use a longer red or black webbing. I guarantee after this failure, the student will never have an issue with tying an anchor in either environment.

In closing, the instructor must use good judgment in determining how much failure is good for the student and class. If the course is becoming confusing or ineffective, clearly the instructor must step in and guide the scenario. Frankly, if this is necessary, it is a good sign the instructor allowed the course to progress to scenario-based training too soon. When this happens, take a step back, review the materials with the students, and then re-execute the skill.

About the Author:

Jeff Matthews is an Associate Consultant at Threat Suppression, Incorporated and manages the technical rescue training provided at the company. Jeff is a full-time fire battalion chief with a large metropolitan fire department in the Southeast. Jeff has more than 25 years of experience in public safety response. Prior to his current employment, Jeff served as the Urban Search and Rescue Coordinator for the Mount Pleasant Fire Department located on the South Carolina coast. Jeff helped to create the team, which has since responded to numerous large-scale disasters. Jeff is a recognized expert in technical rescue and has authored numerous books and articles on technical rescue. Jeff is a principal member of the NFPA 1006: Standard on Technical Rescuer Professional Qualification Committee. Jeff has trained numerous USAR teams throughout the United States. Jeff has also provided very specialized technical rescue training to some of the United States’ most elite special warfare units, and Special Operations Groups with federal law enforcement agencies.Jeff can be reached at

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