Online Training for First Responders: Embrace the Change

The topic of online training for first responders is a divisive one. On one hand, evangelists of online training cite its cost-effectiveness and alignment with younger public safety professionals. On the other hand, detractors of online training argue that it falls short of in-person training and promotes a “check the box” mentality toward training.

In my 30 years of attending fire/EMS training, I have experienced the evolution from overhead projectors and transparencies (one of Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham’s favorite means of presenting) to slide carousels and projectors to subscription VHS tapes to the early versions of online continuing education programs. Every step was designed to be a little better than the previous version, and every change had its opponents.

While online training for first responders has its limitations, we can’t ignore the evolution of continued education. Public safety leaders must understand how online training can and should be used to maximize training goals, without relying on it as a replacement for all training.

Cons of Online Training for First Responders

“You cannot teach firefighters how to ventilate a roof by looking at a computer!” “You cannot teach a paramedic how to start an IV in an online format!” “There is no way you can teach a new police officer how to safely handcuff an individual by watching videos!”

These are all valid arguments, and they typically come from personnel who are speaking from experience. Online training is not the best option for teaching new skills. In fact, when it comes to actual hands-on skills, be it in EMS, the fire service or law enforcement, online training is a poor choice for new skill development, except for illustrating the right and wrong ways to perform a skill. To teach skills, we need experienced members leading and mentoring new personnel. A video can demonstrate right and wrong methods, but a mentor can say, “This is something to watch for,” or “This is how I messed up before; don’t do it like that.” I do not believe you can get that from even the best online platform.

Have personnel watch the video presentation, have them take the quiz and submit the documentation – but then, have them perform hands-on skills.

We can probably all agree that in emergency services, experience is the best teacher. Sometimes we learn from the experience of others, and sometimes from painful lessons of our own. But even with the best academy, the most thorough orientation program, and the greatest field training officers and mentors, we cannot expose members to every possible situation they may experience in that first – and probably their most dangerous – couple of years on the job. We need some means to continue honing their skills and build on what they learned in their initial training. This is where many organizations look to online training options.

So, what’s the big deal? Log on and find the assigned topic, watch the videos, then take the quiz and move on. As an administrator, what’s not to love? The training was completed, documented and filed neatly in the training records. I can track who has done their training and the system will even send them reminders, so I don’t have to. Once the assignments are set up for the year, I can check that responsibility off my list. Organizations can be assured that officers receive the required hours of annual constitutional law training, fire apparatus operators complete their emergency response driving annual requirements, and paramedics obtain the necessary number of hours of pediatric cardiology to maintain their qualifications. Online training is great for checking all the boxes!

This approach is flawed. Making online training for first responders truly beneficial – not merely checking a box on some requirement for certification – requires work on behalf of the organization. Have personnel watch the video presentation, have them take the quiz and submit the documentation – but then, have them perform hands-on skills.

Consider an example. My background is in the fire service. I see the value in a firefighter watching a training video on how to set up a rope rescue system and refreshing on the working load limits of various ropes and knots. But after watching the video, even if they pass the quiz, I want to see them do it! Company officers have to take that firefighter out to the apparatus, pull out the rope rescue gear, and say, “Let’s go over this setup a few times.” Police supervisors wouldn’t say, “You watched a video on inspection and maintenance of firearms. Here, clean and inspect my service weapon.” The same can be said for EMS: “I watched a video on IVs; let me give it a try.” Organizations cannot take the easy route and rely on a stack of certificates to say their personnel are prepared to do their jobs.

Pros of Online Training for First Responders

So, what are online training programs good for? They are good at what they were designed for: continuing education. Online training is great for showing paramedics live changes in EKGs or videos of procedures they rarely perform, such as a needle decompression of the chest. Evidence collection, utilizing new technology to document accident scenes, or interrogating witnesses – these are all skills that can be best illustrated by video.

While online training for first responders has its limitations, we can’t ignore the evolution of continued education.

There is also the issue of presenting the most up-to-date information. An online platform can best present emerging research, such as the latest science on fire behavior and how ventilation affects fire development. And the online program can probably explain it better than the 10- or 15-year veteran firefighter. And do police chiefs really want the shift sergeant explaining a recent change in state statute concerning the lawful detention of a minor? A vetted online source may be able to better explain the new limits placed on an officer’s arrest powers.

Lastly, online platforms better match the learning styles of those coming onto the job today. Remember, they have grown up with instant access to information and video in the palm of their hand. They need to be provided information in a means that works for them. They want shorter explanations and video illustrations. The last thing they are receptive to is a “death by PowerPoint” lecture. The next time you attend a conference, watch what the attendees do as soon as the PowerPoint comes on – many of them pull out their phones and tune out. That presentation style doesn’t work for most groups these days.

Quickly explain it, demonstrate it – then let them do it. We must evolve to new methods of sharing information to reach those joining our ranks today.

Embrace the Change

Online training for first responders – love it or hate it – is here to stay. Today’s learning management systems make the deployment of online training easy, but to make it beneficial, departments must put in some effort. These are not one-size-fits-all solutions. Departments need to evaluate what they want from a program, explore their options and be prepared to customize the solution for the training needs of their agency and personnel.

Training must evolve as our professions evolve. We cannot skip the basics of learning the job, and nothing replaces great mentors who want to share what they have learned. But today’s new officers, firefighters and EMS providers require new means to continue their professional development.

Dave Cline

DAVE CLINE worked the majority of his 30-year emergency services career in suburban Kansas City, Missouri. After seven years of working in a public safety model department, he left for an opportunity in another Kansas City suburb where the fire department was transitioning from an all-volunteer organization to a career department. Over the past 19 years, Cline has been promoted from captain to assistant chief/fire marshal to deputy chief. For the last four years he has served as fire chief. During that time, as the population of his community has doubled, and the staffing at his department did the same, though the run volume has tripled. He now works as a professional services specialist with Lexipol in the fire vertical.

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