BACK TO BASICS: NOT JUST FOR STUDENTS

BY SCOTT C. HOLLIDAY

With all the additional responsibilities the fire service has been shouldering, from technical rescue and hazardous materials to emergency medical services and terrorism preparedness, we all need to refocus on our core mission. Back-to-basics training has been a central theme in fire service instruction for several years now. As officers and professional instructors, we are attempting to ensure that basic evolutions and knowledge are reinforced and that our students maintain a high level of proficiency in basic skills while training in more advanced technical areas. As instructors we must also occasionally go back to the basics of our first educational methodology course and evaluate the training programs we present. The task before us is to make sure that we go back to the basics to ensure we are meeting our students’ needs. Do your preparation, presentation, application, and evaluation meet the needs of your students and your department?

PREPARATION

The old adage “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” is of paramount importance to the fire service instructor. Preparation for teaching a subject begins with a needs assessment or job analysis and a list of written learning objectives. A needs assessment will determine the subject areas to be taught; written objectives will define individual tasks and levels of expected performance.

The material for your needs assessment can come from several sources. One source could be the training requirements mandated to comply with federal, state, and local requirements. As instructors, we have an obligation to meet the requirements imposed on our organizations from all levels of government. This includes making sure our students meet mandated safety and performance standards for initial certification requirements as well as any mandated refresher requirements. This is especially critical in teaching emergency medical services where local, state, and national certification requirements and curriculum dictate the course of instruction.

Training materials and instruction should also be based on the mission of your organization. You need to look at what services your department provides. Does it provide basic or advanced life support emergency medical services? Do you have a technical rescue or hazardous materials team? Your preparation should include researching material that will train the members of your organization in the job-specific tasks they perform. You must make the training meaningful to the members, or you will lose their interest.

When examining your needs assessment, don’t forget to include the leaders of your department, who may also identify training goals that coincide with the stated mission. In planning a training program, find out what the leadership of the department expects from its members. Ascertain which tasks and standards of performance they expect and if they are willing to pay for it. It would be great if the leaders want every firefighter to be a paramedic or a hazardous materials technician, but can the department’s budget sustain such programs? To develop a top-notch training program, these political and financial factors must be taken into account.

Finally, the ultimate guide for your needs assessment should be your end users, your students. Ask the personnel in your department what their needs are. Survey them to find out which areas are of critical importance to them, and see if their responses coincide with what you and your department leaders have determined your training needs are. If what you think your members’ needs are does not coincide with what the members think they need, those issues must be addressed, or learning will be difficult.

The preparation phase also entails research. To be able to teach a subject, you must become an expert in that subject. Your basic resources should include books, trade journals, the Internet, seminars, and formalized instructor training programs as well as networking with your peers. The experience and knowledge in your own department and within the community of fire service instructors are invaluable. Do not overlook the knowledge passed around over the kitchen table in the firehouse. Post-incident critiques and “war stories” over a cup of coffee are as much a form of training as any formalized training program.

Students learn in different ways. They have varied needs, and learning takes place on an individual basis. The preparation phase is never over. We must continue to improve our preparation and learn from our students as much as they learn from us.

PRESENTATION

Many things have changed in the way we present our information to our students. Standing fixated behind a podium lecturing to a class is one way to pass on information. That form of teaching lends itself to some presentations, but most students these days expect something more. They need to be engaged. They need to have some involvement and, whether you like it or not, they need to be entertained. This next generation of firefighters we are teaching grew up in an age of technology. They have been playing sophisticated video games and working with computers since early elementary school. You can stand behind your podium and lecture to them, but unless you engage them, you will lose them. Students should take your class because they want to, not because they have to.

There are various ways to deliver your lesson. Some of the more common methods are listed below:

Audiovisuals. Audiovisual materials can enhance any presentation. Taking advantage of computer software, digital photography, and digital video-or even low-tech items like 35-mm slides or flipcharts-can add a visual component to your presentation. One thing to watch out for is “Death by PowerPoint®.” Just showing slide after slide can take some people back to the memories of sitting through their grandparents’ family vacation slide shows. You also have to be careful that you are not trying to cram too much stuff (animation, music, pictures, or video) onto each slide, which will detract from your presentation. We learn and retain more of what we hear and see than from what we just hear, but to make things really effective we must get the students to hear and see and do.

Demonstrations. They are very effective because they get the student to use more of their senses while learning. They can hear and see and feel while doing the expected task. Demonstrations are useful when a new tool or skill must be introduced. Keep lecture time to a minimum, and provide as much “hands-on” time as possible, to allow for practice and student feedback. The one drawback to this method is that if the tool or skill is handled or performed by only one person at a time, the other students must be kept engaged, or you will risk losing their attention. Demonstrations are best when handled in small group settings or with multiple pieces of equipment and instructors.

Group discussions. Group discussions rely on student participation and allowing them to bring their own training and experience into play. This type of training is great for problem-solving exercises and using tools and procedures in new and innovative ways. It also enables the senior members of the company to pass along valuable information that might otherwise be lost when these veterans retire. A downside to this format is that the group can get sidetracked easily and go off on a tangent. In this case the instructor must act as a facilitator with this type of instruction and keep the training focused and moving toward its intended objectives.

Games and simulations. Games and simulations engage students and keep their interest high and directed at the training. Whether you use games like “Jeopardy” to test knowledge or bring your children’s toy cars to the table to discuss apparatus placement, that physical element involves and stimulates the students to think and act-and learn. Avoid being confrontational and alienating students who may not have the correct answer. Students should not be made to feel uneasy or embarrassed by participating.

Competitions. They can be combined with games and simulations to foster teamwork, but realize that most firefighters are competitive by nature. Make sure the game or competition is done safely and achieves the desired training objective. Obstacle courses similar to the Firefighter Combat Challenge can engage students in practical skill-based competition while still accomplishing technical objectives. Penalties can be assessed for poor safety procedures or incorrect performance, and proper performance and good safety practices can be rewarded. Also, doing tasks in a relay format keeps the entire group involved.

Point out to the students in your presentation that learning doesn’t always take place during scheduled drill times. Explain how they should take advantage of every opportunity to get in some training. As an example, operations could be critiqued at the emergency scene. It should not be a finger-pointing session but an objective analysis of the things that were done correctly and those that could be improved for the next time.

Also, equipment and vehicle checks are good times to review tools and apparatus. When conducting inspections or preplanning visits in your response area, discuss strategies and tactics for the conditions identified. Bring a digital or video camera along and record what is observed for discussion back at the firehouse. Manufacturers’ representatives and salespeople can be used for training purposes as long as their methods and objectives are monitored. They may bring prepackaged training programs for new apparatus or equipment your department purchased or is considering purchasing.

Remember, your presentation must engage and motivate your students for learning to take place. Use different formats, make it fun and somewhat entertaining, and make it rewarding for the participants.

APPLICATION

You have done your needs assessment and the research and preparation needed to teach the subject area material. You have decided the format you are going to use to present your material, and you have gathered your visual aids. You have motivated and engaged your students during your presentation. Now it is time to give the students the opportunity to apply the information or perform the newly acquired skill. Sometimes the line between the presentation phase and the application phase can be blurred, but this is only because teaching is a continuum between both phases.

The application phase allows the instructor and the student to work together to put into practice new ideas and skills learned in the presentation phase. The instructor now acts as a coach, directing, guiding, and providing feedback to the student to encourage continued positive behaviors or correct poor performances. The majority of the teaching and lecturing should take place during the presentation phase. During the application phase, the instructor is “fine tuning” the student’s ability and comprehension. As you observe the student performing a skill or describing procedures, that is the time to emphasize key points and stress proper safety procedures so that they become ingrained in the students’ knowledge base.

The goal of the application phase is to allow the students, under the instructor’s supervision, to put into practice what they learned, thereby actively involving the students in the overall learning process. After sufficient time has been allotted for the students to absorb and process the knowledge or practice the skill, it is time to move on to the final step.

EVALUATION

Everyone hates the word test. It makes some people nervous, some defensive, and some want to know what they have to do to pass the test so they can get out of there. The evaluation phase is critical for students and instructors. For learning to take place, we must be able to show a positive change in behavior. Has the student learned a new skill he can perform or gained new knowledge he can apply to the acceptable level in the lesson objective without instructor coaching or intervention? The evaluation phase allows the students to demonstrate that they have become proficient in the needed knowledge and skills. The evaluation phase allows the instructor to critique his presentation and skills. Did the instructor accomplish all his teaching objectives to a satisfactory level? Does the presentation need some refinement? Did the instructor engage the students and motivate them to learn?

Whether by written examination, practical skills testing, or direct observation of field performance, the evaluation phase must always be included in the instructional methodology plan.

• • •

Going back to the basics is just as essential for the instructor as it is for the student. Reviewing the four-step method for program development allows the instructor to build everything from a simple lesson to a full-scale training program. The preparation, presentation, application, and evaluation steps all play key roles in creating training courses that benefit the department and the students. By reviewing each step and making sure you are proficient at instructing, you can ensure that you are delivering a quality educational product based on a sound method of instruction.

SCOTT C. HOLLIDAY has been involved in the fire and emergency medical services for 22 years. He is a paramedic, a captain, and the commanding officer of the Fire Department of New York EMS Academy; a deputy chief instructor with the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy; and the first assistant chief of the Mineola (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire and emergency service administration from SUNY Empire State College and has been a paramedic in New York City for 20 years. He is a New York state fire instructor I and a Department of Homeland Security master exercise practitioner.

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