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Training with New Technology

For many businesses, travel and training are among the first things cut when the economy slows. The fire and emergency service doesn’t have the option to cut training. Training isn’t a “nice to have”; it’s a requirement for fire service members to do their jobs safely and successfully.

In addition, in the last 10 years, the fire and emergency service and other emergency responder disciplines have experienced unprecedented mission creep. As a result, they’ve seen an explosion of training needs and requirements.

In short, training for training’s sake is no longer valid. It would seem a perfect storm, for training has hit just as economic forces make additional funding for training a political non-reality.

Fortunately, new technology and greater understanding of the way adults learn has brought to bear new and often more effective ways to provide training to fire/EMS members. Technology has provided platforms for learning that didn’t exist 10 years ago—PowerPoint, gaming, simulations, web-based or distance learning options—to name a few. They can’t entirely replace traditional learning mechanisms such as lecture in a classroom setting, but they provide new ways to teach and reinforce lessons learned through multiple settings, allowing the participant to pick the delivery method most in-tune with their needs and learning styles.

“Distance education provides savings in a lot of ways—some financial, some on staffing effort,” says Madison (Wis.) Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Jim Keiken.

Madison utilizes both synchronous and asynchronous training delivery methods, including video-conferencing capabilities in each station that allow training sessions to be delivered from a central location without units leaving their response areas. A learning system called iTrain (Moodle) delivers and tracks asynchronous learning, limiting the hours required by the training office to track manual training records. In addition, iTrain allows great flexibility—personnel can access the system 24/7 and complete their training requirements on their schedule, not on the schedule of an available instructor.

Asynchronous learning is a student-centered teaching method that uses online learning resources to share information beyond the constraints of time and location. Synchronous learning occurs at the same time in the same location.

The growing use of these platforms has been aided by the maturation of decades of research regarding how adults learn. The age-old adage that adults can’t learn is far from the truth; adults learn in ways that take into account their existing abilities and experiences. Adult learning is a field of study all its own, and research in recent years has shown that adults can learn, and learn very effectively.

While the upfront cost and preparation time for distance learning may be greater, there are real long-term savings to be had. With Madison’s 84-square-mile district, one course at the training center, delivered to all three shifts to ensure all personnel receive the training, requires 34.2 hours of travel time for units to make the trip to the center, covering 1,096 non-emergency miles. Distance learning allows units to remain in their stations, lessening the requirement to move units to cover stations, which may affect optimum response times.

The change to distance learning was a challenge at first, acknowledges Keiken. As the department has changed over time, the acceptance of e-learning has grown. Now, units are asking for access to the video-conferencing to conduct training class within their own response districts; shift officers even do training sessions several times a month to address needs they’re seeing in the field.

Adults have some basic principles for learning, as described by Malcolm Knowles, a renowned researcher in adult learning: Adults have to understand why something is important to know and they need the freedom to learn in the way that best fits their skills and abilities. They learn through real-world application and experiences, and learning must fit into their personal and professional goals at that time. Finally, their learning must be an encouraging and positive process.

In Madison, high-rise training was recently delivered through a hybrid program: background info was delivered through the iTrain system and video-conferencing; drills were done at the training center and focused on the hands-on aspects. “Firefighters were out doing what they want to do—and they didn’t have to spend hours in the classroom first,” says Keiken.

IAFC eLearning Programs

In recent years, the IAFC has focused many of its training programs to follow new models of training delivery.

The National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System has begun several new training initiatives. As with all Near-Miss training, the data provided by posted reports are the integral aspect of the training.

A free monthly webinar series, Tools of the Trade, will focus on a different topic that has been recently featured in the program. The first webinar episode was “Tools of the Trade: Surviving the Fire Ground”. The premier webinar focused on the 2011 Fire/EMS Safety Health and Survival Week and showed how to incorporate the Near-Miss Program tools and resources with the topics of Safety Week. View the entire webinar online.

In its initial development, the IAFC’s Hydrogen Fuels Training and Education Research and Outreach Project was intended to fulfill a need within the volunteer fire and emergency service community for accessible training to the growing use of hydrogen fuels. As training budgets continue to tighten, the training is an option for all responders.

Located on the Responder Electronic Learning Community, the Hydrogen Course is being housed on a scalable platform, allowing training to be developed and delivered via the same mechanism as new challenges and issues emerge. The course embraces aspects of adult-learning principles, such as scenario-based learning reinforced through knowledge checks and an end-of-course test. It also uses animation and interaction to train first responders on response to hydrogen fuels. Course launch is expected in fall 2011.

Another IAFC program currently in development, the Training for Regional Collaboration (TReC) program, offers enhanced training methods that couple traditional instructor-led training with web-based training modules. TReC also utilized adult learning principles with a heavy focus on interaction between attendees during face-to-face training. Program launch is also expected this fall.

Melissa Hebert is the program manager for the IAFC’S TReC program.

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