So much has changed for the fire service since the onslaught of COVID-19. Workloads have shifted and increased, but in many cases, funding has diminished.
Firefighters have been exposed to the virus, become sick, even died. Protocols for PPE and equipment sanitizing have become more stringent and burdensome. Opportunities for in-person interaction with the community have nearly disappeared.
One area that has been hit particularly hard in the age of COVID-19 is training. Firefighters can no longer gather in multi-company groups to engage in classroom or hands-on training. Regional training programs have been canceled. It has not been possible to attend national events, such as large conferences or the National Fire Academy.
No one argues that training is less important now or should be prioritized any less. If anything, maintaining skill sets and knowledge through regular training is more important than ever. But no one really knows when it will be safe to conduct consistent in-person training again the way it was done just a year ago.
As fire service instructors deal with the reality that much of what they teach must now be conveyed through digital platforms, they need to keep in mind five things.
1. TECHNOLOGY IS CRITICAL, BE PREPARED
I have often advised that those who teach in-person be prepared to deliver the class even if the technology support entirely fails. But with remote learning, if technology fails, you have nothing. If it doesn’t work, neither do you.
So be prepared. Know the platform or software you will be using. Study it. Practice with it before you go live. Talk to others who have more experience with the platform. Consider doing a tutorial or class on the software as preparation. Understand that there are several meeting/training platforms, and they all function a bit differently. Know what troubleshooting features exist.
Define your role within the presentation platform. As the instructor, you will be identified as a host, but will other hosts also be present? At least at first, it is helpful to include an additional host or monitor with solid experience with the software. This person can be present silently in the background but can be invaluable in case of a breakdown or problem.
There are many options when using electronic meeting platforms (such as screen sharing, polling, etc.), but it is usually best to keep it as simple as possible, at least at first. If you plan to use advanced features, practice with them ahead of time and add them into your program incrementally. Also, use a simple background for your screen.
2. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Are you doing a class for other members of your shift, people that you know well, or will your audience be students from a local community college that you have never met? Where are the participants located? Are they from your own department or region, or will you be talking to people from different states? When teaching remotely, it is even more important to remember that there may be organizational or regional differences in such things as terminology, basic tools, or assumed tactics that could lead to confusion and distraction from your essential points.
How many people will be participating in the session? Some platforms limit the number who can attend while others do not. What are the demographics of those who will be present? Age can have a big effect on the success of online training as older people tend to be less comfortable with technology and may struggle to keep up while young people who grew up with tech may become impatient with an instructor who isn’t completely comfortable with the program in use.
3. CONSIDER HOW TO INCLUDE ENGAGEMENT/INTERACTION DURING THE CLASS
All platforms have the ability for participants to ask questions or make comments during the presentation. How will you catalog this input while keeping the narrative of your presentation going?
In smaller groups, it might be possible to allow unrestricted group participation, but this can become a bit chaotic if not managed. It is usually best to ask participants to mute their microphones until they want to control the platform for their question or comment. Otherwise, the software can jump around among participants when cued by indirect comments or background noise.
Consider sending out a class overview ahead of time and asking for questions before the actual class begins. Then you can build some of those questions into the presentation itself, saving time and keeping things moving.
Try to adopt a conversational tone for the class. Do not read from a script. Make a conscious effort to speak clearly and not too fast, looking at the screen as if you were in the same room with your audience. Pause regularly and ask for questions or comments from participants. Be sure to repeat any question asked before answering it.
It might be possible to incorporate brief solo or small-group activities into the presentation, with the emphasis on brief. If you ask your audience to do something that is time-consuming or complex, it is very possible you won’t get them back.
4. KEEP CLASSES SHORTER COMPARED TO IN-PERSON SESSIONS
Everyone has screen fatigue these days. Even the most entertaining instructor becomes just another talking head after a while. Some tips: Divide more difficult or complicated topics into smaller chunks. Try training for less time but more often.
5. PROVIDE REFERENCES AND RESOURCES.
Remote training can only do so much. Where can participants get more information about the topic? How can individuals or crews expand on the training on their own? Providing links to short videos can be a great way to reinforce the message of the training, but don’t overlook other resources as well – books, websites, articles podcasts. Consider making your own short videos to supplement training.
All firefighters know that training is critical for them to be effective on the job. Most firefighters and instructors prefer in-person training, but when that is not possible, valuable educational sessions can still take place. Preparedness and commitment are the keys.
About the author
Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision-making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Willing is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. Willing has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. She is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Willing via email.
Republished from Fire Rescue1 Magazine with permission.