For years now, fire service publications and leaders have warned about a knowledge gap, as a generation of experienced fire service leaders retire, causing the officer ranks to be filled with firefighters who’ve seen far fewer structure fires and spent more time training for all-hazards response.
But as much as we’ve talked about this problem, we haven’t really begun to solve it. One area that’s shown promise: simulation training, which immerses the trainee in lifelike situations, building muscle memory that can be recalled when faced with a real-life situation.
Now, a new entry to the field is combining that approach with a unique way of capturing the experiences of outgoing officers. AlphaTRAC, an emeregency management and solutions company, recently released AlphaACT HAZMAT a web-based training tool that uses scenario-based simulation training while also capturing the experiences of its users (view a video about the training tool here). Although this first product focuses on hazmat, the company is building a tactical fire training program and has plans to enter the law enforcement training market as well.
Target: Better Decision-Making
“Our job has historically been to gather data and information and put it in a form that decision-makers in a crisis can use effectively,” says Reed Hodgin, AlphaTRAC’s founder and CEO. “About five years ago, we discovered that although we were delivering more and more information into the hands of emergency managers, we weren’t seeing a corresponding improvement in their ability to control emergencies. So we had to ask, if we’re giving them more information, why aren’t they making better decisions?”
What they discovered is that information is only one part of the equation. An equal, perhaps bigger, component is the natural decision-making ability of the incident commander.
“Some chiefs, battalion chiefs, etc., do a really great job of making the key decisions quickly when faced with a complex incident and little information, and others freeze up and do a terrible job even with a simple situation and a lot of information,” Hodgin says.
Studying research about the cognitive processes involved in decision-making and crisis reaction, AlphaATRAC’s researchers discovered the missing ingredient: experience. “Excellent crisis managers think differently than the rest of us do,” Hodgin says. “Over a period of 15 or 20 years, they come to use a different process of thinking.”
That process: recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM). Experienced decision-makers show up at a scene, do a quick size-up, and use the information they can see to trigger recognition, or the memory of an event that they have been to or been trained on or heard about. They use that event from history to help them deal with the crisis. Hodgin notes that this is extremely effective because, “while all emergencies are unique, they’re also in some ways similar to other things that have happened. ICs with a wealth of knowledge in their heads and the ability to recall that knowledge quickly make decisions in a blur, and good ones.”
AlphaTRAC was soon on a quest to determine how it could capture the experiences of skilled fire officers and share them with less-experienced colleagues.
At the same time, the Department of Defense noticed a similar need in military training, specifically training soldiers to prepare for asymmetrical warfare. So over the next several years, AlphaTRAC worked in conjunction with the DOD to develop a training platform.
“We went to the various disciplines that represent the end users and held workshops with law enforcement officers and firefighters, asking them, how do you share information, how do you like to train and how often?” Hodgin says. “We took that information and designed a technology that would 1) automatically gather experiences in a story format, because firefighters like to tell stories and 2) provide an innovative approach to training by turning the experiences people have had into scenarios that can be used to teach how to think fast and what are the important things to look for, to trigger the process of recognition.”
The beta version of the program was pilot tested with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFRD) and Westminster (Colo.) Fire Department. SDFRD Battalion Chief Dave Williams, the department’s Special Operations-HAZMAT Program Manager, tested the program several times. “The first time was during a small work group meeting/presentation on the product, using laptop PCs that were provided,” he says. “Other times have been in our fire stations using the fire station PCs.” He immediately noticed the product’s potential. “It continues to improve each time I use it,” he says. “The information contained in the product is very good and applies directly to the hazmat incident response community. The scenarios are well thought out and consistently portray ‘real-life’ hazards.”
The SDFRD testing process also provided the opportunity to refine the product. Williams says the department suggested “clarification and revision on some of the technical aspects of the scenarios from a first responder’s perspective and some insights on how a first responder [student] would use the product.”
Perhaps most importantly, he also stressed to AlphaTRAC researchers that it would be important to “make the net result more clear to the first responder from the start, i.e., that the application is designed to teach a decision-making skill set and methodology and not just provide answers on how to handle a hazmat incident.”
The end product: a Web-based training tool that can be used by a responder or team of responders, in as little as 15 minutes. “It uses artificial intelligence engines in the background to look for patterns and bring the right experience to the fore for teaching,” Hodgin says. “The user logs in online and goes through one scenario or a variety of scenarios. The artificial intelligence agent scores it, and then coaches them on what they can do to improve.”
Williams says that the program is comparable to other simulation programs he’s used. “Once you learn the flow of the system, it becomes fairly intuitive and easy to use,” he says. “Initially, there is a short learning curve to navigate the interface to be successful.”
In addition to the computerized coaching, the platform includes a social networking aspect. Users can discuss their experiences in forums and critique one another, further enhancing learning. “We know that responders listen to each other better than they do some outsider,” Hodgin says.
Because the technology is built as a platform, it can easily be adapted to different disciplines. Thus, while AlphaTRAC began with a hazmat training product, it is currently at work on a much broader based tactical fire training program, which it expects to be available in late 2012. “Ultimately, what we’ve created is a thinking tool, not a hazmat tool,” Hodgin says.
Positioning the training platform in this way evolved in part from the feedback of the SDFRD. Williams says he advised AlphaTRAC that to reach a broader student base, the product would need offer standard fireground scenarios. “Hazmat is not really all that interesting to the rank-and-file firefighter and/or incident commander,” he says. One caveat: Williams sees the product’s true potential as less of a tactical tool and more of a decision-making tool. “It strives to teach a decision-making methodology that can be applied to tactical fireground or all hazard incident scenarios,” he says.
The IAFC is currently evaluating the AlphaACT HAZMAT training program; its Technology Council expects to release a white paper about this approach to training within a few months. The program is certified NIMS-compliant by FEMA and is available as a subscription for fire departments or individual users.
In the meantime, AlphaTRAC’s researchers are scouring fire service publications and training programs to help them develop appropriate tactical simulations for its fireground training program, all the time visualizing a new way to teach up-and-coming officers to be able to react with the experience of a 20-year veteran. “Our purpose is to improve all of our abilities to manage crisis situations,” Hodgin says. “That’s what we’re focused on. We’re doing this to improve emergency management.”