It has been argued that the company officer is the most important and influential position in the fire service. The company officer interacts with their crew on a daily basis and has a great deal of responsibility: They must learn how to handle the human dynamics of contrasting personality types, identify crew deficiencies, maintain and promote positive relationships with the public during times of crisis and deliver the message of upper brass. But perhaps the most important task: training their personnel.
Today’s world is becoming more reliant on technology. Everyone has a smartphone; laptop computers are being overtaken by iPads and other tablets. Thousands of miles apart, we’re able to talk to each other via digital video, while breaking news events are transmitted across social networks in real time.
We can regard these rapid technological developments as scary–or we can take advantage of them to enhance and create virtual training opportunities for our crews.
In the not-too-distant past, our firefighters were thrown onto trucks and trained “on the job.” Additionally, we were able to burn vacant homes and buildings for live-burn training without an act of Congress. However, for many departments, those types of training are largely gone, and they aren’t coming back. With the increased volume of non-fire related calls, such as EMS, rescue, technical rescue and service calls (not to mention public relations, inspections and fire-prevention activities), our time to train gets squeezed. What can the company officer do to ensure that their crew is proficient and prepared?
One answer: Embrace the technology that is available to us. This article isn’t meant to address the specifics of each method that’s available, but to provide some ideas on how to maximize new technologies to meet the training needs of a new generation of firefighters.
Embrace Vicarious Learning
The first thing we need to understand is that because we’re going to fewer fires, our firefighters are getting less hands-on experience in how to fight them. As a result, the company officer must find ways to create those experiences for their crew, especially the newer firefighters. One way to do this is through vicarious learning.
We’ve all heard the term “vicarious” and some may have even heard it in terms of learning, but I have found that the fire service does not always understand or accept the role of vicarious learning. If done correctly and in the appropriate ways, it can be extremely valuable and effective. A basic dictionary definition of vicarious is substituting for, or in place of another. As it applies to fire service training, then, vicarious learning means that we will use the experiences of others in place of our lack of experience.
This isn’t a new concept to the fire service–we used to, and still do, participate in vicarious learning by reading the monthly fire service publications. The problem with the paper periodicals: We’re dependent upon what they wanted to write and publish, regardless of whether they meet our needs at that specific time. Also, we have to wait a month to get new material, and that material is dated by the time we get it. Looking back, how did we ever survive? With the Internet, we can search for any topic or event and obtain instant results and information that can assist us with what we need, when we need it.
In fact, the results of such searches and how we use the information we obtain form the most basic building blocks of simulation training. Simulations can come in many forms. When we mention simulations in the fire service, we typically think of software and computer models that simulate events, apparatus and scenarios. But videos, online articles, credible blog sites, photos and line-of-duty death reports can be combined and applied to our operational guidelines, policies, recent calls and similar buildings to create rudimentary simulations.
Note: The company officer must do some research and due diligence in finding content and material that’s credible, reliant and meets standards and best practices. Not everything you read on the Internet is accurate!
Find the Right Tools
Delivering the training with technology will be the next challenge. Computers are the easiest and most available source for technology-based training. But don’t rule out phones and tablets.
As simulation becomes more essential to the fire service, company officers and other leaders will need to have a firm grasp of how to use simulation software. Depending on how comfortable you are with computers and software, this may be challenging at first, but it’s well worth the investment of your time. Other challenges associated with simulation packages: cost for software and licenses, getting older firefighters to embrace simulation and learning to create realistic drills that apply to your response area.
Not all firefighters are going to be excited about using technology for training. In many cases, the older demographic can be resistive to such changes. If you encounter this, remember that the resistance is not to the training but to the technology itself. Many of the more veteran firefighters are used to primarily hands-on drills and using their prior experiences to guide them. Actually, as they came up through the fire service, many will tell you that they did what they were told regardless of the reason.
This is where we can use our diverse crew and our resourcefulness to create some cohesiveness. Newer, younger firefighters are typically well-versed in the latest and greatest technology, but they’re not as well suited for hands-on drills. In contrast, veteran firefighters may have more difficulty with the technology component but can excel at the hands-on modules. Use this to your advantage to implement technology into your training. (Note: Yes, I realize these are broad characterizations, and any department will have firefighters who don’t fit these molds, but in general they often hold true.)
Start with having some of the new firefighters assist in the technical aspects of the simulation software. Let them help you get it downloaded, installed and set up. They can even help you create the simulations–not the purpose of the simulation, but actually creating the photos, incidents, etc. on the computer. Additionally, have those same younger generational firefighters help get the veterans online.
Make Effective Simulations
When using simulation for training, it’s important to create simulations of incidents that could occur in your area. The beauty of most of these programs is that you can go out and take your own pictures and use them in your simulations, making them more real for your firefighters. Also create drill objectives from each incident prior to the simulation session–the individual skills or tasks that would be used at the incident.
Simulation training is most effective when combined with hands-on training. Often, the simulation is used to identify and learn the basic training objectives prior to the hands-on training. This use of technology also lends itself well to time restraints. If call volume becomes an issue, we can use other software options or apps to narrate over the simulations and let the firefighters watch the simulations on their own time. They can have an established amount of time to complete the simulation assignment before the hands-on drills are held. So, they will come to the hands-on drills prepared and ready to perform manipulative skills.
Then we can go out to the engine room floor, drill tower, building or parking lot and practice these drill objectives. This is where the veteran firefighters come into play. Let them assist in the hands-on portion of the class. This provides them a role as a coach and helps to re-establish their role as the voice of experience. They still need to use best practices and established standards, but in many cases, these veterans have done the drills many times over and show proficiency that can be shared with the newer group.
This combination of simulation and hands-on training is especially useful for volunteer departments and agencies with multiple houses. But the use of technology can streamline aspects of any company’s training. It promotes learning at your own pace, crew cooperation and trust via the assistance each generational category contributes. And it targets specific skills while using simulations that create our own vicarious experience.
Use It Wisely
The future leaders of the fire and emergency service must understand and embrace new technologies. There is perhaps no more important area where technological changes are transforming our jobs than in training. That said, you must be patient. Change doesn’t always happen easily or quickly, and high-tech solutions aren’t appropriate for every type of training. A company officer who is adaptive and resourceful will be able to use simulation and other types of technology to enhance their training and drills while also understanding when hands-on training is needed.
Remember: Technology is a tool and is not the only method for providing training, but when used appropriately, it can provide the opportunity for something much more effective than “run of the mill” training.