Fire Fighting in Canada

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Virtual fire training

My first experience in a brotherhood was when I played high school football. To this day, and much to my bride’s embarrassment, I’ll occasionally bust out the old leather bomber jacket that has my number and position on the sleeve.

December 7, 2015
By Chris Davison-Vanderburg
An e-learning program can cut down on the hours that firefighters spend in the classroom to give them more time on the training ground. An e-learning program

I wear my school colours with pride and I still love my brothers from that team.

There are lots of similarities between team sports and fire fighting: you likely wear your colours – OK, just navy blue – on a T-shirt with as much pride as I do the old football jacket, and you likely love your brothers and sisters and feel honoured to be one of them.

In both sports and fire fighting, it takes hard work to be part of a championship team: effective training, mastering the physical skills, and drilling until tasks can’t be done wrong. In our departments, all three components can be improved with an effective e-learning program.

Instituting and getting firefighter buy-in to an e-learning program in your department won’t be easy. We have experienced technological and software challenges, and issues finding the right people with the right skill sets to create engaging and interactive content, (more on that in future articles). An e-learning program is not going to change the fundamentals of training and it’s certainly not going to replace drilling and practice.

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Firefighters train and practise in order to get everyone working on the same page. Anyone who has ever taught a class, developed a course, or built an entire program knows just how much energy goes into preparing lesson plans and teaching them to firefighters. My football team took three years to develop into an effective and cohesive group with the skills needed to move a ball across a field. Considering the complexity of the fire service, it’s imperative that firefighters learn how to be effective and efficient with their training, practice and drilling time.

E-learning can provide a multitude of efficiencies for your fire department, but it takes time; there is no magic formula that makes a good e-learning program, tailored to your department’s specific needs, which is engaging, interactive and easy to produce. Integrating a program takes work, creativity and line backer-sized patience.

In future articles I will detail the lessons Brampton Fire and Emergency Services has learned about developing e-learning modules. First, though, a bit more about why our organization has invested in the virtual classroom. The bottom line is that e-learning benefits both the department and the front-line crews.

■ Benefits for firefighters
The best thing about e-learning modules for end users is that they provide personalized learning experiences in a pressure-free environment.

Each of us has unique experiences and understanding of any given fire-service topic. A well-designed e-learning module allows learners to control their training experiences and tailor them to their own unique knowledge, skills and abilities. They can skip what they already know and focus on new information.

How many times have you sat through a class and listened to things that you already know in order to pick up just one or two nuggets of new information? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a directory at the beginning of the class that lets you customize your learning experience? Students can still review previously learned materials, however, the option is there to cut straight to the chase.

E-learning modules are designed to be broken down by topics, levels or specific job functions such as officers or firefighters,
in order to appeal to each learner. Individuals can then personalize their learning accordingly.

If an organization wants proof that firefighters learned specific skills, the modules include assessment material and quizzes that can be set up so that when a student gets an answer wrong, it forces a review of that topic before moving to the next question.

The most significant benefit of an e-learning experience is the ability for firefighters to work at their own pace. With a virtual program, time constraints become less of a factor since individuals can repeat key points, rewind and re-watch videos, or start and stop as needed. Additional control allows users to do what they need to in order to fully grasp and then retain the material. Improved retention has direct benefits for both the individual and the organization.

Egos are often on display in the classroom. Pride can get in the way of people showing vulnerability. As a result, most people will not let on that they don’t understand something and may not ask the instructor for clarification or to repeat what was presented. This is especially the case with senior firefighters or officers when they feel that they should already know the material.

In a virtual environment, people have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The outside pressures are removed and students can focus instead on learning in the most effective, efficient and concise manner available.

■ Benefits for departments
E-learning helps departments achieve unparalleled levels of standardized training, transcend the traditional logistical issues of face-to-face training, and offers a constantly increasing return on investment.

Think of the effort that goes into standardizing certain aspects of the fire service. How many NFPA standards are there? How many SOGs and policies does your department have? Having the team on the same page is necessary in order to win, and that is the goal of every training officer (and football coach) across the country. But what if there are different people teaching the same subject in different ways? E-learning allows training officers to instruct with unparalleled consistency. The message for each class, each station and each firefighter is identical with zero confusion or contradictions.

Logistically, e-learning puts and end to scheduling nightmares of matching up available instructors and crews. For larger departments, e-learning can reduce costly overtime and instructor wages. Smaller departments are still able to instruct when the single all-star instructor misses practice night or moves out of town.

But here is how to kick a field goal and get bonus points: the longer a department manages to use and recycle a specific e-learning module, the better the value. Each time an e-learning module is used, the return on investment improves. There are minimal delivery costs and the expense of producing the module is frontloaded so the more uses, the better the return on investment. How many times have you taught the same subjects over and over again to another batch of wide-eyed recruits?

E-learning also compresses training time – some say by as much as 60 per cent – and allows for the efficient use of down time at the station. Night owls can do their modules once everyone has turned in, and early birds can do theirs while enjoying morning coffee. Learning is on demand; keeners can even learn from their mobile device while waiting at the doctor’s office.

■ Limits to e-learning
E-learning will never replace what is most important: drilling the basic skills needed to do the job. I believe that the No. 1 priority for any training officer or division is to create a group of unconsciously competent people who are so well-rehearsed at the task level that they can blow past any type of defense with ease – be it a locked door, an IDLH environment or a mangled vehicle. Football games are won by running windsprints, practising tackles and catching passes with so much repetition that plays are flawlessly executed. You can’t learn how to hump hose on a computer, and you aren’t going to learn how to give compressions by watching a video. We need to get our firefighters doing these task-level skills over and over and over again. But firefighters need to spend their limited time wisely – i.e. not sitting in a classroom.

In theory, e-learning could eliminate the classroom altogether for most subjects. All of our teams are filled with winners, but a championship team gets that way by practising those psychomotor skills needed to do the job. If you spent your annual classroom time practising forcible entry, moving hoselines or cutting open car doors, how much better would your team be?

Embracing e-learning will allow firefighters to spend less of their face-to-face time talking about how to do something, and more time practising and drilling.


Chris Davison-Vanderburg is a training officer with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services. Email Chris at chris.vanderburg@brampton.ca and follow him on Twitter @CapHyphen


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