Home Fire Fighting Articles Decade of Disasters Puts Pressure on Firefighter Training

Decade of Disasters Puts Pressure on Firefighter Training

by Marcus
TPressure on Firefighting

A decade of disasters has put pressure on firefighter training. New fire training systems help departments provide improved training.

The past five decades have seen firefighting evolve from a narrow focus on fire science to embrace extensive training for pre-hospital medical care and other specialised response skills. In the past decade, however, public pressure for even higher levels of trained responders has increased as a result of an unparalleled string of disasters.

On 22nd May 2011, the deadliest tornado in 50 years ripped through Joplin, Missouri USA leaving a swath of destruction ten kilometres long and over one-and-a-half kilometres wide. “There was panic – firefighters were pulling themselves out of the debris and then helping others,” said Mike Bettes, a meteorologist from television’s Weather Channel who arrived ten minutes after the tornado touched down. What is shaping up to be the most costly tornado season in US history comes just months after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami devastated the country’s northern coast, killing over 24,000 and touching off the worst international nuclear emergency since Chernobyl. It had only been eight months since floods left one-fifth of Pakistan under water. Three years earlier, a cyclone in Myanmar killed at least 146,000 people.

The list goes on. In fact, the top five natural disasters of the past decade caused more than 540,000 killed or missing, according to the website World Weather Post. Time magazine dubbed it “The Decade from Hell.” Some would argue it started on September 11, 2001, when more than 400 emergency responders lost their lives trying to save others from the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

These catastrophic events, along with the intense media coverage they receive, have changed the public’s expectations of firefighters. The pressure has never been greater on departments to train for most any emergency, medical or otherwise, whether it is a minor car accident or a devastating terrorist attack.

Evolution of Training

Until the 1960s, firefighter training was basic and limited mostly to fire science. Then in 1966 Cardiac One was introduced in Ireland. Equipped to treat pre-hospital cardiac patients, it was known as the world’s first hospital-based ambulance. That same year, Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society, commonly known as The White Paper, was published. It compared wounded Vietnam soldiers to California highway accident victims. The study suggested that victims’ survival rate increased through a combination of community education, stricter safety standards, and better pre-hospital treatment. The pre-hospital treatment often fell to those most commonly first on the scene: firefighters.

Decade of Disasters Puts Pressure on Firefighter Training

Pressure on Firefighter Training

The 1970s saw the firefighting community broaden its services to include patient care; and by 1981, 73 percent of American fire departments provided some level of emergency medical service (EMS). This additional service meant that fire fighters were required to train for a whole new skill set.

Throughout the 1980s, procedures and protocols varied by region. Then the 1990s saw careful research that identified the most effective treatments. As the information spread, standards were developed that helped fire departments deliver the best possible EMS. By the year 2000, professional firefighters had evolved from brigades that put out fires to being true first responders that could administer a high level of on-scene, pre-hospital medical care. But the string of catastrophic events beginning on 9/11 and carrying through to the Joplin tornado and beyond has generated a public mandate that any emergency – from car accidents to terrorist attacks to natural disasters – be met with teams of highly trained emergency responders.

Government Standards

The public’s mandate for skilled responders has been met with numerous government programs in most every country. In the US, through the All Hazards Emergency Operations, issued by FEMA (federal Emergency Management Agency), firefighters are expected to train in areas that include but are not limited to:

  • Hazardous materials
  • Nuclear disasters
  • Atmospheric contamination
  • Flooding
  • Mass casualty incidents
  • Explosions
  • Structural failures
  • Plane crashes
  • Bombs
  • Pandemic illnesses

In addition, the post 9/11 Presidential Directive 5 had a stated purpose “to manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system.” It also called for a “core set of concepts, principles, terminology and technology within the incident command system.” This directive added yet another level of training requirements for first responders.

Fire departments are working hard to meet the challenge of training its firefighters to a high level of competency in diverse disciplines. Yet as training requirements are on the rise, budgets are being reduced, especially in countries caught in the economic downturn. Departments are looking to advances in training methods and cost-reducing delivery systems to help them close the gap between training and funding reality. While there is no simple solution, capitalising on new technologies and decades of refined training may help. Training officers worldwide are discovering a tool box of delivery systems that work well together and save money when compared to the more traditional approaches. This latest training leans toward a multi-media, multi-dimensional, and multi-disciplined approach.

Decade of Disasters Puts Pressure on Firefighter Training

Pressure on Firefighter Training

New Training Technology

The traditional training classroom is most likely the best environment for new topics or courses on leadership development or how to conduct an evaluation. But classroom instruction tends to be boring and therefore a poor learning experience for the participants. Multi-media tools, such as interactive video or simulations, can vary the pace, motivate the learners, and enhance learning. Breakout sessions provide hands-on opportunities with simulations. Teams can practice, for instance, with SimMan, the next-generation mannequin that has a varying pulse, bowels sounds, a multi-venous IV arm, and can be intubated.

Simulation tools are a popular alternative to dangerous and expensive real-life training drills. They offer instant, in-station training that is flexible and easily repeated. With simulation, instructors are able to control the situation, which means they can determine which skills are taught, reinforced, and evaluated.Fire simulation software, like StageIT from Action Training Systems, allows a department to video a local facility and then super-impose fire or smoke onto the -interior or exterior. Simulated victims can be added, along with other obstacles, as the instructor asks, “What would you do?” Audio can also be added, such as a roaring fire or running chain saw. This type of training is used to generate a life-like feel and real-scene experience in a simulated classroom environment.

Another effective simulation is available for apparatus drivers. Sitting in a chair surrounded by screens, it is similar to a road racing video game. The participant is able to improve skills or demonstrate competencies such as speed and traffic control. The vehicle can be changed from an engine to a ladder truck to an aide car.

A lot of this technology is new, yet improvements have already been made thanks to training officer feedback. When the first fire simulation software came out, pictures or video could not be added and it did not interface with Windows. Today it is much more user-friendly and continues to improve with each released version. Simulation is not the only technology-driven training tool. Computer-based training (CBT) is a relatively new application that also offers flexibility and cost savings. CBT was first met with the assumption that it was an inferior training experience when compared to traditional classroom instruction. According to an article in Professional Safety by Scott Lawson, a study was conducted to determine whether that assumption was correct.

In the study, two test groups were given an examination, then instruction, then the same examination again. The group instructed using CBT improved their score by an average of 53 percent, while the traditional classroom group improved by only 14 percent on average. The groups were tested again three weeks later. The CBT group again showed better retention over the classroom instruction group.

Improved retention is not the only benefit of CBT. When the fire department of Independence, Missouri, opened a new, $2 million training facility, Assistant Chief of Training, Steve Bailey, explained the situation: “We can not take everyone out of service at one time to train, so our department broke our crews down into four training groups. To give one class to everyone in the department, we had to teach it four times for each shift, times three shifts, with one make-up class for each shift. So, to teach one class, we had to give it 15 times. We also had to move trucks all over our town of 200-plus square kilometres to get personnel to our training room.”

Looking for a more cost-effective training process, Bailey discovered Action Training Systems’ CBT programs running on the Iluminar Learning Management System (ILMS) and was impressed with the quality of the video content. “When I did a demonstration of the Action Training Systems’ CBT, it was actually interesting,” he said. “The video was interesting to watch and if you answered questions incorrectly, it took you back to show what mistake you made. There was no way to hurry and guess your way through it or cheat, which I really liked.” Since 2008, Bailey has purchased about 80 courses, almost the entire ATS library. “With ILMS, we can assign the class to everybody and it is easy to track,” he said. “We run reports to tell us who has and who has not had the training, and we can teach to the entire department without pulling a truck out of station and driving across town to the training facility, so now they can stay in service.”

Technology for Testing

A close cousin to CBT is computer-adaptive testing (CAT), and Gregg Margolis, associate director of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) is a big fan. He likes the move away from paper and pencil testing because he feels that CAT gives a more accurate measure of skill. As he explains it, with each correct answer the questions become more difficult and, conversely, with each incorrect answer the questions become less difficult. The test is geared so there are about as many right answers as there are wrong answers. “People should try to get out of their minds the notion to get 70 out of 100 correct,” Margolis explains in an interview. “It is not going to happen in adaptive exams. We have all taken many linear exams so it is natural to think in those terms.” Margolis goes on to explain that the adaptive nature of the test means that everyone will score about the same; however, a high achiever will get increasingly difficult questions until their maximum competency is revealed. Margolis also likes that the testing environment is secure and that the results are instantaneous.

Pressure on Firefighter Training

While technology has become more common and user-friendly in training, today’s newest emerging tool is social media. Facebook is used to make announcements, to communicate within and between departments, and to connect to departments overseas. There is a vast library of videos on YouTube that includes drills, extrications, explosions and close calls; others are simply entertaining. Twitter, StumbleUpon, and other social networking sites are only now being used by the fire fighter training community.

As the demands on emergency responders have expanded, there has never been more pressure on firefighters to perform such diverse skill sets and apply them to a multitude of incident types. The training bar is high and departments worldwide are meeting the challenge through hard work, ingenuity, and a tool box of training systems. At the same time, there are many companies providing innovative products to help improve the training experience.

One such company is Action Training Systems. Action Training Systems is a multi-media development company and worldwide leader in innovative training systems for emergency responders. Established in 1988 in Washington State, USA, and led by President and CEO George Avila, ATS has produced more than 80 courses and 200 products for municipal fire fighters, industrial firefighters and EMS, including training on DVD and CBT (computer-based training) formats, lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations and the StageIT simulation software. ATS teaches only to American national standards such as NFPA for firefighters and NEMSES for EMS personnel and to ensure the authenticity of the content, they shoot in real life locations and only use real emergency responder personnel for demonstrations in their videos.


by Maureen Lander of Action Training Systems

Maureen Lander is responsible for Content Development at Action Training Systems. For further information,go to action-training.com

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