Span of Control 

 By, Alan Rufer, MBA
            It is Saturday morning and my daughter and I decide to go to the local coffee shop and have some breakfast.  While we are eating a family of six comes in and sits at a table next to us.  There were two boys and two girls in this family and I would estimate their ages to range between one year and 6 years old.
            I noticed my daughter had been closely watching the mother and father tend to the various needs of the children.  I ask her what it is she finds so interesting and she replies “those kids are young, so you need to have more than one person to watch them”.  I asked her how she came to this conclusion.  She then went on to explain to me that as she went through daycare she noticed that the older she got the fewer teachers she would have in the classroom.  She said that one day she asked one of the teachers why she did not get as much help as some of the other teachers.  The teacher explained that the younger children need more supervision and help learning new skill s and that is why they have more teachers in those classrooms.  Now to put this conversation into context, my daughter is seven years old.  If a seven year old can understand the concept of span of control then it really should not be that difficult for us as fire instructors to understand it.
Span of control is a critical component on the fire ground but it is equally important during training evolutions.  Span of control is commonly defined as 5-7 personnel depending on the curriculum that you read.  Have you ever wondered why there is a range and not a definitive number?  There two primary factors in determining the appropriate ratio of students to instructors to maintain span of control.  My daughter pointed out the first; how experienced are the students.  Experience should be defined by the level of exposure or knowledge of the given subject matter and not the number of years in the fire service.  Why is this?  Because I have over 20yrs in the fire service but very limited experience in rope rescue.  If you are supervising me based on my 20yrs in the fire service then I am not going to get the level of personal instruction that I will need to learn the skills.  In addition, my safety may be compromised because of insufficient supervision during practical evolutions.  Basically, in regards to rope rescue, I would need to be treated like a new recruit because of my limited exposure and knowledge on the subject.  This is why it is so important for instructors to know the background of their students.  More on that in another column.
The second significant factor in determining the appropriate ratio for span of control is the experience level of the instructors.  The more knowledgeable and experienced the instructors are in the subject matter, the greater number of students they can supervise.  Overall the experience of the instructors and the students is relative to the overall span of control.  However, I feel under most circumstances, ten is the maximum number of students an instructor can manage in a hands-on training evolution.  If you want to create a learning environment that is both conducive to learning and safe you must build span of control into the syllabus.