Departments Use On-Demand Training to Retain and Empower Volunteer Firefighters

It would be difficult to overstate the value volunteer firefighters provide to their communities. Dating back to the Revolutionary War, the tradition is one of the earliest and finest examples of the American willingness to serve one’s friends and neighbors regardless of steep costs or harsh consequences. Whether they augment professional rosters or serve as part of an all-volunteer corps, participants who carry on the custom today sacrifice their time, their physical health, and even their lives in the same noble pursuit, receiving little or no recompense for the labor they provide. Despite these challenges, volunteers still make up some 70 percent of the U.S.’s total firefighting force, with the brunt of their labor serving remote or rural communities, per National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) statistics.

While the inherent health and safety threats of firefighting are troubling enough on their own, they are far from the only hurdles volunteers and their oversight organizations face. In a country where volunteerism rates are down across the board year-over-year, simply keeping a roster full can represent a major challenge. So too can providing training, a concern that acts as cause and effect in the larger efforts to keep volunteer firehouses staffed. Agencies may struggle to keep volunteers due to their inability to meet training standards or fail to find qualified applicants who can make the time commitment needed for training, for two examples.

Reputational and work-social concerns may also make life difficult for volunteers. The inaccurate, unfair thought that volunteers are “less worthy” for the role — borne in large part from an ongoing rivalry with professional counterparts — may diminish team confidence, especially when training issues are used as insult fodder; this despite NFPA data indicating the average volunteer has five years’ experience and 40 percent have a decade or more.

A modernized training regimen bolstered by on-demand training (ODT) modules has real potential to help volunteers and their organizations overcome all these problems. The flexible, cloud-based model’s strengths are particularly well-suited to volunteer teams, considering the challenges proffered by their staffing needs and majority rural settings. By adopting the model, organizational stakeholders can improve quality of training (and attendance thereof), giving volunteer teams critical knowledge to apply in the field without logistics precluding their ability to participate.

Differences between volunteer, professional teams underscore value of on-demand training for responders

The careers of volunteer and professional firefighters are marked by significant objective differences that have little or nothing to do with the quality of their work. At a high level, most stem from the basic fact that one camp receives compensation to fight fires, while the other must continue to earn a living outside of their responder activity. Though the difference sounds simple enough on paper, its consequences play a direct role in most of the challenges volunteer stations face today.

In some instances, this difference may cut to the fundamental services a volunteer department provides. Where a career station in an urban or suburban region has the luxury of deploying in-house personnel to a fire or medical call, rural volunteers must often depart from their jobs or homes instead. A given volunteer, for instance, may need to notify their employer that they are on-call for the day. The difference is distinct enough that state legislatures have passed laws protecting volunteers and firefighting organizations have negotiated with local businesses to keep departing volunteers from facing repercussions for missed work hours.

Similarly, geographic distance and personnel location may play a role in the ability to provide training. At a career house, in which superiors direct and schedule their personnel as they see fit, pay effectively creates a greater expectation of availability. Contrast this with the volunteer firefighter whom, needing a certain training regimen to stay certified, requests time off from work for the few days a critical course is available. They may have to choose between their job and their continued ability to volunteer, a chance that only rises with the number of shifts they have had to leave due to emergency calls.

Other challenges in volunteer firehouses may complicate these concerns. Volunteer turnover, a worrying standalone problem, becomes all the more insidious when the department’s ability to train personnel comes into play. Just as a volunteer may have to choose between acceptable work performance and the ability to respond to calls, their department may have to decide whether strict standards or full rosters are more important. It hurts to remove an otherwise qualified staff member for failure to meet the department’s ongoing training standards, especially when agency decision-makers know how challenging it can be to find a new volunteer to fill the gap. Ultimately, this can lead to a tough call for stakeholders who, while cognizant of the complexity of staffing, understand that relaxing training standards reduces safety for personnel and public alike, and that making special exceptions can create animosity between members and a general sense of disrespect for the rules.

Professional firefighting outfits have turnover problems all their own, and many undoubtedly struggle with a standards-vs-available-talent challenge because of it. However, it is just as certain that the financial aspect makes finding replacements and newcomers easier — and that training standards, in particular, are easier to enforce compared to the relative struggle volunteer agencies face.

How on-demand training bridges the gap

Now consider the core difference between online and classroom-based training. The latter requires in-person presence and all the logistical considerations it entails for attendees as well as instructors, while the former is largely accessible anywhere and anytime. This basic difference highlights the model’s primary strength for volunteer departments, and particularly those in rural locations. When distance is no longer a factor, and timing is far less of one, volunteer organizations are free to maintain and enforce training standards—or create new ones based upon their newer, more flexible delivery method.

The benefits become clearer when applied to a previous example. Instead of forcing employees with work and life commitments to carve out time for classroom-based training, the department can offset stricter training requirements with looser logistical considerations. The agency can add greater weight to the expectation of training without sacrificing their ability to retain talent, while the volunteer achieves a higher level of training in a format that is easier to mold to the particulars of their personal life.

Accordingly, agencies facing high turnover due to standards-based removals and employee “schedule strain” self-attrition can utilize on-demand training regimens to keep volunteers in place. Shifting to a cloud-based format gives volunteers more freedom to choose when and where they consume training modules, reducing the chance that missed lessons will mitigate qualification.

On a more general level, effecting stronger training measures may reduce incidence of the professional-volunteer rivalry mentioned above, or at least render certain points toothless. Broadening availability of training effectively closes the gap between professionals and volunteers. When firefighters on both ends of the spectrum attend training sessions that require an in-person element (situational live-fire lessons or PT courses, for example) and have the same level of access to lessons consumed via computer, unfair criticism of volunteers becomes less common. The playing field, in other words, levels.

Of course, volunteers do not come into the service expecting a small commitment of time or effort: no one willing to rush into a burning home to save people free of charge should ever have their commitment to the job questioned. Even then, changes in employment, life circumstances, and simple misunderstandings may preclude them from achieving training performance that matches legislative or organizational requirements. On-demand training prevents the snags that may cause conflicts like these, paving the way for a better learning experience.

In volunteer stations, on-demand’s potential is transformative

Certain aspects of firefighter education absolutely require a live environment. Others can be transcribed to a digital format but better impart lessons in person. Even without these, firefighting’s scientific background and near-academic approach effectively afford endless topics that transcribe perfectly to the screen.

On its face, this makes on-demand training suited for any type of firefighting service. Looking specifically at the volunteer branch, however, the model represents solutions that could not be better for the field’s needs if they were crafted specifically to meet them: a flexible, accessible format with lesson templates that can be modified to provide any manner of information stakeholders require. As more organizations look to overcome the unique challenges of volunteer firefighting, expect training regimens bolstered by on-demand modules to play an increasingly large — and effective — role.

Posted on Nov 13, 2018