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Lifelong Learning in the Digital Era

Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn. – Alvin Toffler

Setting the Context: Concepts Related to Lifelong Learning

Leadership and learning go hand in hand. As a means to support professional development, fire service leaders should embrace the concept of lifelong learning.

To remain continuously prepared to face new challenges and increase public awareness about fire prevention, fire officers must continually adapt to their learning environment. Organizations whose members aren't engaged in regular learning often make the same mistakes over and over again, sometimes culminating in tragedy.

Gordon Graham, a leading risk-management expert, reminds us that for every 300 mistakes firefighters make doing a similar task, 30 will end up in an accident and one will end in tragedy (Graham, 2002). We all learn from our mistakes, but when the stakes are high, we may never get that second chance.

Benefits of Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning is continuous, deliberate and self-motivated. Committed fire officers routinely pursue information for personal as well as professional reasons. When learning is personally relevant to our interests and goals it:

  • Enhances skill
  • Improves job performance
  • Develops a higher level of thinking

When this happens, the motivation to learn is high and leaders, not surprisingly seek out new learning prospects as a basic human need to improve and grow (Stanford, 1998).

Adapting to New Technologies

Growth opportunities are present in a variety of formal and informal training and educational channels. In the digital era, we have increased access to traditional forms of learning, including college programs, videos and trade journals. Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of informal learning opportunities by way of blogs, podcasts and video-sharing websites.

The expansion of information sharing has had a tremendous impact on our industry. With the advancement of informal learning methods, we've seen a new level of engagement from members outside the halls of time-honored education concepts.

Continuing education and learning is no longer held exclusively to traditional training systems. Because of this technological expansion, we have seen an increase in commitment from all roles and ranks in the industry.

Self-motivated and active members of our organizations are no longer confined to classrooms or peer-reviewed journals to share their ideas, techniques and feedback. One powerful example is Irons and Ladders, a firefighter-run forcible-entry blog. A typical day for this group of truck company bloggers has between 500-1,250 visitors. When a new article or video is posted, the site's daily average can reach 6,000–8,000 visitors and a particularly challenging article received over 30 thousand views in one day alone (Royal, 2014).

The Key Is in the Overlap

It's clear that a lifelong learner should appreciate the value of utilizing a combination of traditional and nontraditional learning programs. The key is to appreciate that maximum learning when occur when officers blend the two learning styles and don't view them as in conflict with each other.

Leveraging Resources

With this exponential expansion of information, it becomes increasingly important for fire officers to develop an ability to navigate through the medley of data and advice to find the most valid and relevant material that suits their needs.

As an institution of learning, the U.S. Fire Administration Library has been a cornerstone for new ideas and progress. The library has continued to adapt to emerging technologies to ensure the endurance of its legacy. Over the past several years, the library in Emmitsburg, Md., has worked to provide greater access to fire and emergency services literature and resources outside the library walls.

Access at Your Fingertips

The USFA Library, also known as the Learning Resource Center, contains one of "the most comprehensive collections in the United States of materials relating to the fire service and emergency management" (FEMA, 2008). This exclusive collection focuses on literature specifically related to emergency response, fire prevention, homeland security and a myriad of leadership topics.

The library has recently completed a major project that has made much of its material discoverable in the WorldCat search engine (Metz, 2013). WorldCat is the world's largest database of library materials and is universally available at any library in the country.

The materials available through this system include thousands of fire and emergency service books and videos in addition to several hundred professional journals and magazines. All of these materials are available online or through interlibrary loan agreements with your local library through their online catalog, 24/7, and all at no cost.

More with Less

During a time when public-sector leaders are being asked to do more with less, the difference between success and failure often depends on how we use our time.
The USFA Library has two innovative, quick-access programs that can maximize a leader's time and provide immediate access to recognized fire-prevention and life-safety programs.

Community Risk Reduction

The Fire Prevention and Public Education Exchange is an online program that operates as a consolidated clearinghouse for national, state and local fire-prevention and public-education materials. Fire and EMS officials seeking new ideas to implement in their communities can access and download a variety of model prevention and public-education programs directly from the USFA Library.

For more-focused topics, the library staff can provide a quick response to reference questions. A call or email to the library can provide an immediate response to ready-reference questions on a variety of common issues.

Solutions for Critical Issues

Another component of the USFA Library sets it apart from other venues for lifelong learners. The library has made the collection of Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Applied Research Project papers available through WorldCat. This body of work that once sat idle among the stacks for onsite users only is now available electronically.

With focus on applied problem solving to real-world leadership challenges, the papers "have led to numerous improvements and changes to communities" throughout the country (Metz, 2013).

Over 7,000 papers are available online. Each paper is searchable by topic or keyword, allowing users to locate and apply a wide variety of solutions from the industry's top leaders. Placing this collection of extensive work on the web and into WorldCat provides tremendous access to an exclusive resource for the entire first-responder community.


An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. – Benjamin Franklin

The development of digital content will remain a focus for lifelong learners and libraries alike. A visit to today's USFA Library continues to avow the iconic images of books in stacks and a peaceful retreat for study. Yet the resources, programs and services that abound outside the building also serve to provide new access to critical information and ideas that will help fire officers make timely and appropriate decisions.

The library's improved approach provides lifelong learners with greater access to the best ideas and solutions in leadership, training and fire prevention.

For fire and emergency service leaders, there will always be plenty of new ideas and opinions to explore. According to Edward Metz, head librarian at the National Fire Academy, the library will continue to serve as a curator to help the public make decisions and navigate through the noise and volume of information to find material they can trust and use (Metz, 2014).

The library system doesn't only remain an enduring resource for lifelong learning; the USFA Library continues to provide fire service leaders the greatest opportunity and accessibility to unlock and enhance the talent and best minds of our industry.

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