A New Outlook on Education

In today’s world, it’s not always true that you get a simple answer when you ask a simple question. That’s particularly true these days in the fire and emergency service, where a startling rate of rapid change strains against a strong sense of tradition.

About a year ago, the IAFC asked a seemingly simple question:

In such a dynamic environment, how do we ensure our educational programming remains fresh and relevant?

To find the answer, the IAFC established the neXus project, an effort to reframe the association’s education and networking model that gives back to the fire and emergency service community by helping members not only learn and find solutions, but also take an active role in developing and sharing new ideas.

The Process

The process began with several core premises:

  • The IAFC must remain member-driven.
  • Each member is different, and offerings must reflect the ability to personalize and tailor programming not only to different needs, but also to different ways to contribute knowledge to the larger organization.
  •  Education should be an exciting opportunity throughout a career, not a box to be checked.

One of the most fascinating exercises in the program-development process was the creation of IAFC personas—character/need sketches of 23 different stakeholder groups based on real feedback from focus groups and various surveys.

We were expecting a complex answer to our question, but after many focus groups of various stakeholders, member and user surveys, SWOT analysis sessions and more, the solution materialized.

It seemed deceptively easy: keep what’s working, replace what’s not.

What’s Working?

The cornerstone of the IAFC’s new philosophy isn’t so new at all. It’s not the latest wiz-bang gadget on the market. Our anchor is our people, with the experience and energy they bring to the table.

Relationships – Relationships are at the center of every IAFC success story. Put a handful of members in a room and soon you’ll have a solution. Add some stakeholders from government, other public-safety disciplines or industry and you’ll be off and running. Healthy relationships—and the open and frank conversations that accompany them—can only strengthen the fire and emergency service.

Knowledge – IAFC members are the leading experts in the fire and emergency service. Their knowledge and experience are central to developing strong models of leadership, educational content and delivery, and solution development.

Member-driven – IAFC programs and services are and need to remain driven by those who use them. Only responders can identify the challenges they’re facing in the field and how solutions can be applied in a way that’s both realistic and effective. The key to success here is that member-driven doesn’t mean members-only. In fact, engaging a broader level of stakeholders will often lead to the most effective solutions for our members.

Forward thinking, but based in reality – As the organization that supports future fire and emergency service leaders, our members need to take a leadership role in creating the fire and emergency service future. But forecasting the future is only effective if it’s based in some reality about how you get there.

What’s Going?

Unwillingness to challenge the status quo – Innovation is a hallmark of the neXus program, both operationally and programmatically. Some people don’t like change, and some programs or opportunities that are born from the neXus project will certainly raise eyebrows at first. The fire and emergency service must build and embrace its own new models. Under this new approach to education and networking, IAFC members are stepping out boldly with nonmembers, partners, industry and others to declare new ways of doing business.

Fear of technology and technology for the sake of technology – These are two ends of a spectrum, but equally dangerous. IAFC educational programming recognizes technology as a tool to achieve a goal, not as a goal itself. It leverages technology to harness and deliver information, connect the community and create administrative efficiencies.

What’s New?

Energy – A fire service in motion stays in motion. Professional development programs must offer opportunities to continuously learn, connect and create. Programs challenge participants to think outside the box, learn new ideas and continue to grow as leaders.

Engagement – The old education model brought a few people into a room a couple times a year to sort through presentation submissions and divine what may still be interesting and relevant a few months later. In the new framework, ideas and conversations are constantly evolving through engagement and feedback from members, nonmembers and other stakeholders participating in various programs. With this model, programming committees are able to operate as true strategists and educational architects, not just paper evaluators.

When and where you need it – The traditional conference model is still a major part of IAFC services, but expansion of regional offerings is underway. Regional programming was a major focus of much of the feedback we received, and it’s one of the most anticipated developments of the program among members. Technology will also help the IAFC expand 24/7 e-learning capabilities through session capture, webinars and podcasts.

Beginning with Fire-Rescue International 2011, the IAFC has begun reviewing and modifying existing opportunities under this new lens. Likewise, new educational and professional-development program offerings will be developed, keeping in mind the individual needs of these personas and how they contribute to the diverse needs of the fire and emergency service.

Ann Davison, CAE, is the IAFC strategic information manager.

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