Four Tips for Switching to Online Training for Firefighters

Education of all kinds was disrupted over the past year and a half, from preschool and university classes to in-person training for first responders.

Many fire departments across the nation found themselves suddenly dependent on online and virtual learning.

While this digital transformation might not have occurred under the best circumstances, the numerous benefits fire departments and agencies see from transitioning from in-person learning to online training and virtual classes are undeniable.

One example is the Kentucky Fire Commission. The agency’s mission is to train and certify volunteer and career firefighters statewide, a framework supported by Kentucky’s sixteen community and technical colleges. The agency’s website notes that more than 100,000 students in each of the past five years have been enrolled with the State Fire Rescue Training Program.

This summer, the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) also made the switch to online training. The IFSI is Illinois’ statutory fire academy and delivers more than 14,000 class hours each year to students online, on campus, and at regional training centers around the state.

The benefits of online training

With both organizations, the benefits of moving away from legacy training systems were quickly realized.

  • Pivoting to a digitalized system helped both test takers and test providers. Automating the certification process means participants get their test results faster and the organization saves money by not having to process, print, and mail certification certificates.
  • Less paper meant saving on storage space and less physical contact. Paperless recordkeeping and internal statistics are more easily shared between departments, allowing instructors more time to prepare and deliver specialized training and teach new skills.
  • Testing integrity was improved. Inadequate testing procedures in conventional environments can harm departments if trainees aren’t truly qualified. With digitalized learning systems, administrators can better detect and manage testing integrity. For example, most online tools enable instructors to conduct individualized testing by randomizing the type of questions and order of content. Instead of a handful of test versions, instructors can program a different test for every student if they choose.
  • Digital systems enabled flexibility in how tests and assignments were administered. Digital training allows instructors to field test in any environment and sync the data when connectivity is available. Upon completion of the tests, instructors can transfer written, online, and proctored tests to a participant’s centralized personal records.

As more fire agencies and departments around the country convert from in-person training to virtual instruction, it’s important to be proactive in laying the essential groundwork to ensure the pivot to online learning and certification is as seamless and smooth as possible.

How to make the switch

Here are four recommendations to help make that transition successful.

1. Make registration fast, simple, and straightforward.

When the Kentucky Fire Commission began the data collection process of email addresses and usernames, they sent out a link to all personnel with concise instructions on how to finish setting up their account. They required names, contact information, date of birth, driver’s license numbers, and each firefighter’s personal 8-digit code.

Members were provided a firm deadline, an Excel spreadsheet on which to enter their information, and a specific email address to send it to.

Registration should be concise, simple, and take no more than a couple of minutes to complete.

2. Confirm that all personnel have accounts and know how to use them.

Some people are not confident in their technological proficiency and are apprehensive about learning new systems. Regardless, it is essential that all participants are comfortable with the technology upgrades and use them properly.

Ensure they understand the ins and outs of accessing their accounts, finding courses, updating their contact information, and printing training records and certifications.

Once a digital training system is set up, most departments no longer print and mail certification certificates to individual members.

3. Share the personal advantages of going digital.

On the student side, firefighters undergoing training and/or certification have the flexibility of doing their online course work from their homes at their convenience.

While some online courses and testing are virtual and occur in real-time with class proctors, many learning modules allow participants to do their work when they can rather than on a fixed schedule. In some cases, participants can begin a test, save their results, and resume the test as their personal schedule permits.

For instructors and training coordinators, online training can make a dramatic difference in efficiency. A learning management system (LMS) eliminates issues like group size limits and social-distancing recommendations. Registrations can happen automatically without tedious data entry. Online courses are also more easily updated or duplicated, saving time.

4. Request feedback and suggestions during and after transitioning.

When transitioning to a new system, there must be buy-in from those affected by the new processes and systems. Requesting feedback from trainers, department managers, and firefighters themselves encourages a smooth transition and helps address concerns before they grow into potential problems.

Some departments do internal surveys to obtain feedback and suggestions on improving the transition and identifying potential pitfalls for future learning models.

Fire departments and academies might have initially implemented digital solutions as a backup to fully in-person operations. Still, those departments who have experienced the benefits and cost savings of online training aren’t looking back.

Posted on Aug 19, 2021