Top tips from Ian Gurling, FIA Training Manager

08 April 2015

Acquiring new skills and furthering your knowledge through training is as vital as the toolbox to the fire industry professional.  

Keeping up to date on current and developing legislation, British and European Standards, guidance documents and technologies can all combine to draw the technician or engineer away from their working day. 

However, the technician who sidelines the learning of new skills risks falling behind best practices, changes in the industry, and developments in technology, which could result in losing out on business to their competitors. 


For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the fire technician. For someone leaving school at 16, finding help and advice on what training is required and what is available in the fire industry isn’t easy. 

The prospective technician is likely to hold a fundamental knowledge of electronics and computer programming and they’ll probably understand how to use tools. But they will certainly have a lot more to learn before specialising in any field of the fire industry.

The choices available to a 16 year old would be either to attend a college and complete an NVQ; find employment and complete an apprenticeship; or find employment and be trained on the job by the employer. 

Unfortunately, spaces on NVQs and apprenticeships are few and far between, so on-the-job training prevails. The great benefit to on-the-job training is that employers can mould the technician to their company ethos. 

The downside is that every employer has a different opinion on what is important and what isn’t, standards of training vary, as does the breadth of subject area covered. 

What you then have is a technician, be they new to the industry or experienced, who needs to fill the gaps in existing knowledge and to increase learning in other areas.  

Learning providers

What can the learning provider do to ease the pain? I have used the term learning because what a professional needs is more than training. While we are all familiar with training and automatically turn to the internet and training brochures, it is learning that is key. 

Training implies teaching someone to repeat a task or to follow a prescribed formula. The successful technician goes further; they develop their understanding, learn how to apply principles to solve problems. 

It is not simply a case of connecting two parts of a system together and knowing that it will work but understanding why those two components have been selected; what the function of each component is and how it performs; how the components connect, communicate and work with each other. 

This is where the learning provider steps up to the mark. Developing that level of skill and knowledge takes time but carries huge benefit to the individual, the business and to the customer.

Value for money

Yet training remains a grudge purchase. It represents a grey economy. It is easy to see the expense when the course invoice comes in or the loss of business time with customers but not so easy to see the income. 

Charging extra to send a trained technician as opposed to one that has not been trained at all is not something the industry has tried, yet! 

So where is the financial reward of all this training? It’s easy to miss the efficiency savings of employing people that know what they are doing. Getting a job right first time prevents expensive repeat visits to correct errors. 

A technician who understands what is required inspires confidence in the customer, which translates into repeat business. A knowledgeable technician can provide further advice and higher standards of customer service. 

Many of us have experienced the situation where we have not wanted to call a technician because we either worry that a job is going to be done incorrectly or we don’t have confidence that they know what they are doing. 

In the fire industry there are two main streams of learning which are required. There’s the theoretical side of the industry where technicians will understand legislation and guidance, and the practical side where they apply tools to the task at hand. 

Either way the professional needs training that is current, relevant and cost effective, providing learning that will develop their knowledge, skills and understanding.  

The learning provider has to be able to offer all of this and therein lies the challenge. For the majority of courses the two areas are kept apart, professional and industry bodies provide theory training and manufacturers provide practical product training. 

The difficulty here lies in the areas of practical skill or knowledge that are fundamental to the task. A manufacturer will instruct a technician in how to connect a circuit in a fire alarm system but is unlikely to provide instruction on how to use a meter to test it. 

Building a course

The first stage in developing any course is identifying the course that is needed and what it should include. This involves consultation with employers to identify what they require, learners to identify how much they know and what is required to bring them to standard, and with experts in the field to put the material together. 

As an example, for our latest course development, BS 5839-8 Voice Alarm Systems, our consultation with employers and learners found that voice alarm was commonly perceived to be a black art and that it was necessary to return to basics. 

We needed to cover areas as diverse as the fundamentals of sound through to design principles of a voice alarm system. To achieve this we brought together a panel of experts comprising of an electro acoustician, manufacturers and suppliers of voice alarm equipment, voice alarm system designers and installers, an FIA Technical Manager and myself, acting as referee. 

Together we were able to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge, understanding and practical skill. 

It will still be necessary to attend product specific training but having completed the training technicians will understand the principles of audibility, clarity and achieving effective coverage.

The learning provider can do a lot to help the professional in the material it produces. ‘Death by view foil’ was a common phrase in my early days as a trainer; not surprisingly this phrase has kept up with the times and has evolved into ‘death by PowerPoint’. 

It is important to maintain the concentration and interest of the learner. Designing the course material to utilise training and presentation aids that best illustrate the point is the first step. 

PowerPoint is an incredibly powerful tool and it is easy to get sucked in to using all of its features, resulting in a presentation full of breaking glass, motorbikes, and duck sound effects accompanied by slide transitions reminiscent of the opening credits to Crossroads. 

As a keen advocate of keeping things simple, I believe that the presentation media is there to support the trainer, not to upstage them. And so PowerPoint should be used to illustrate the point alongside the white or black board, flip chart or even the students themselves. 

In fact, switching between presentation aids helps to maintain that attention, as long as it isn’t taken to the point of being distracting.

Having developed the course material and gone back to employers and learners for accreditation, the learning provider has to open the course for general consumption. No matter how good the presentation material, it is the trainer that can make or break a course. 

Fortunately, gone are the days of the lecturer in a brown tank top sporting a pipe stood in front of an impossibly long equation on the blackboard. Trainers now manage a dynamic learning environment. They continually monitor the attention and engagement of the students. 

Trainers recognise learning styles and tailor their presentation technique, if necessary, on an individual basis to encompass the visual, written or oral learner. They will even change the presentation if required, which is where the flexibility of flipcharts or white boards comes in. 

Concluding comments

The final aspect of training that has to be fulfilled is value for money. Learners have to gain something from attending the course and I’m not referring to a free pen.

Going back to the voice alarm course I mentioned earlier, this is seen as a black art and many fire detection and alarm businesses will pass enquiries on because of the issues of audibility and clarity. 

As an introductory course it is necessary to demystify the properties of sound, explain the technologies and to give technicians the confidence to say “yes, we can do that”. 

This gives them an additional service that they can offer, and not one to be passed on or subcontracted. The learner has gained, the employer has gained and the business grows. 

By Ian Gurling, FIA Training Manager