If you are fire, rescue or EMS oriented, or all of the above, providing quality training for your department or squad is difficult at best. The state and national credentialing requirements, OSHA and NFPA requirements have to be met. Trying to squeeze all those hours into a sensible schedule, we have to keep the training interesting to keep our employees and/or volunteers active.
The job of training has recently become more difficult than ever with the downturn of the economy. In this article we will explore ideas collected from around the state and region on maintaining a quality training program in this time of budget shortfalls and cutbacks.
Let’s review the elements of a successful training program and a few of the challenges and setbacks that come with extremely tight or nonexistent training budgets. Quality training is essential to performance and safety, regardless of the state of the economy.
Training for incoming personnel
All areas of public safety require initial training at the most basic level. Initial EMS credentialing is required for employment in most EMS services. For the majority of new recruits, credentialing is the individual’s responsibility. Firefighter training, as described in NFPA 1001 and rescuer training as described in NFPA 1006, may be provided by the department (largely with help from the local community college). Departments may elect to require this training prior to employment. A few systems have developed EMS training academies and start an employee at the EMT-Basic level. From this level, employees can advance to the paramedic level much like the larger fire departments who run their own firefighter/EMT academy. For smaller services and departments, this is not cost effective due to the small amount of students relative to the size of the department or a low turnover rate. Volunteer agencies sometimes sponsor new members and help offset the personal out of pocket cost of training.
In North Carolina fire, rescue and EMS personnel are “fee exempt” for a large amount of training within the community college system. This helps in keeping costs down for all fire and EMS services, but there are constant rumors that the state will eventually eliminate the “fee exempt” status. This rumor has not been validated by any organization or authority and is only included in this article as a “what if” scenario.
We all wonder how the volunteer or smaller career agencies would acquire quality training without digging deeper into their already empty pockets. In different parts of the country people seeking initial certification pay for classes out of pocket and are not reimbursed. I heard a much respected volunteer fire chief say recently, “Not only are we asking the volunteer to risk their lives for free, but now we may be asking them to pay for the opportunity.”
Ongoing training for new recruits
After the initial certification and credentialing is complete the new recruit now has to actually learn to apply what he or she has learned in the street. This is the responsibility of our field training officers or assigned preceptors or mentors. No amount of mannequin lab time or drill tower time can prepare the learner as much as actual seat time on the truck. This type of training is not very expensive, but it takes quality field trainers and skilled officers. The problem in this area may be the creation of a position within the ranks for a field trainer. This is already a part of a captain or lieutenant’s job description in some departments.
A good field training program is objective in its grading scale. Each task should be measurable as well as appropriate to the job. This can be evaluated on a shift by shift basis with a Daily Observation Report (DOR) and each report kept in a binder to track the “newbie’s” progress. Another good way to keep up with the recruit’s progress is with a task book. A task book will assign the recruit and the trainer with tasks to be completed within a set amount of time. Covering each SOG, medical treatment protocols, and learning equipment location are good examples of a task to be completed. An area for the recruit and the trainer to initial and date when tasks are complete should be included. The DOR’s and the task book can be used together and kept on file at the end of the recruit’s probationary period.
Current department members and officers need training to keep them proficient in the fundamentals, but they also need more advanced training to keep them abreast of new developments. This is how most systems “grow their own” leaders and field trainers. Keeping up with the newest techniques and innovations also falls under professional development.
Changes in emergency medicine take place at a rapid pace as do changes in fire and rescue equipment and methods. Keeping pace with the changes and enhancing our leadership skills can be a challenge with the travel and training budgets being cut or eliminated altogether. The upper level classes can cost the department in travel and lodging since many of our response areas are not in major cities where the classes or conferences take place.
In North Carolina, the Office of the State Fire Marshals Office, Rescue Association and the Office of EMS sponsor nominal cost basic and advanced level courses throughout the year. The classes cover a wide range of topics such as high angle rescue, breathing equipment school, command and control. The downside to these classes is mentioned above with the travel and lodging cost. Some students are willing to split the cost or help find cost cutting measures, such as staying in a lower cost hotel off site of the conference or class, for the chance to attend these classes.
Weekend seminars sponsored by local community colleges across North Carolina also offer low cost development classes as well as fundamental classes. The cost is minimal and if you live in NC there is a good chance you will be able to find a seminar close to your service area to cut down on travel and lodging cost.
Cost cutting measures that have been implemented in different parts of the country have been through distance learning programs. A good example is the National Fire Academy Online program. Classes offered include incident management, fire officer development, EMS response to MCI, fire prevention and wild land fire. This resource can be accessed at www.nfaonline. dhs.gov.
The NFA and Department of Homeland Security also offer on-site classes that are totally reimbursement is available through FEMA. There are also National Fire Academy leadership and tactical “hand-off” classes that could be taught on a local level through the local community collage.
The responsibility of professional development does not solely lie with the department. Individuals seeking to further their career in fire, rescue and EMS are seeking advanced degrees from institutes of higher learning. The community colleges offer relatively low cost Associate Degree programs for Fire Science, Emergency Medical Services and Emergency Management. There are undergraduate programs available at the university level at state supported schools that offer educational opportunities with distance learning as well as traditional classroom studies.
If your employer does not offer tuition assistance, there are many forms of financial aid available though your prospective school. There are scholarships available through the North Carolina State Firefighter’s Association and the North Carolina Association of Rescue and EMS. Scholarships are offered to the members and children of members of the organizations for two- and four-year institutes of higher learning. The associations can be accessed at www.ncsfa.com and www. ncarems.org respectively.
Ongoing training and in-service training
As responders we need to learn the new technologies and advancements in our business, but we also need to continually train on the fundamentals that make us good at what we do. Are your training resources being used to their full potential? We need to ensure that we are not just meeting the time requirements to recertify or meet the departmental minimum. Are we truly making ourselves better at what we do?
This need can be met by our in-house instructors and staff. At the volunteer level, this can be accomplished on “training night.” Career departments can save on training budgets by training on-duty during shifts by completing training evolutions and drills with scenario-based training or “training in context.” Materials for drills can be as simple as blocks of concrete to be lifted and moved using cribbing and pry-bars or using existing equipment on the truck for evolutions for fundamental fire attack or water supply training. I was reminded very recently (the hard way) by my volunteer fire chief that we all need to practice using the fundamental skills no matter how many years of experience we have.
EMS in-service can be challenging even to the bigger services with training coordinators and in-house instructors. How do we pay for instructors, training materials, mannequins and overtime salaries for paid personnel to come in on their off day for training? This could be an even bigger problem the smaller services who do not have EMS instructors or resources to oversee and coordinate the program. These services rely totally on the local community college as a teaching institution and many departments or EMS services do not compensate employees even for off duty (call back) training.
Self-study programs are one way of cutting down actual class room hours. Trainers can compile information into a study packet and include a written test to insure compliance. Trade magazines and journals are great resources that provide great articles that provoke thought and further study. Some journals provide an article, test and provide CEU.
There are also commercial subscription-based programs that can assist fire, rescue and EMS agencies with on-duty training. Various subscription based programs offer an online and DVD/lesson plan/classroom option for one price. I utilize some of these systems as an additional training resource and have been impressed by the quality of the programs and the speakers in the videos.
Subscription based and online training cannot replace live training and drills, but it can supplement your existing continuing education program. The cost of the subscription based programs may be offset by the need to pay employees to come back for off duty training. Some community colleges are offering EMS “continuing education” in an online or hybrid format.
A hybrid format allows the learner to complete classroom type work online while practical skills are completed on-site with an instructor. Check with your local community college for distance learning availability. Follow your local EMS system plan and check to make sure that your plan does not exclude or limit online training. The National Registry of EMT’s limits the number of online and self-study hours to be used for continuing education to 10 hours and the program must be approved by the state or CECBEMS .
The fact remains that we need to continue to train our fire, rescue and EMS personnel to the highest standards available. The safety of our crews is at stake and your customers are counting on you to make a difference. The fact also remains that the availability of funds is dwindling for much of our industry. Unfortunately, we have more questions than answers. There is no magic spell or silver bullet for this problem. If we all come together, share ideas and work together, maybe we can help ease the strain on all of us.