Firefighter Training Paradigm Shift from COVID-19: Traditional vs. Online Learning

Mike Ciampo instructs firefighters during a hands-on training evolution at FDIC International 2019
Photo by Tony Greco

By Daniel Vecchiolla

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives, both personally and professionally. Some of us have been affected by the disease, and most know someone who has had it. The United States just recently marked 500,000 deaths and counting from COVID-19. Needless to say, we acknowledge the seriousness our nation and the world have been facing.

As first responders, we are at significant risk of contracting the disease compared to other professions. Providing care for the public daily and dealing with many COVID-19 symptomatic patients, all fire departments have changed the way operations work. New standard operating procedures (SOP) and standard operating guidelines (SOG) have been implemented across the board for fire departments. This has provided first responders with the necessary policies and guidelines for responding to emergency calls safely.

Besides changing our operations, we have had to change the way we train. Restrictions have set limits on how we train, where we train, and how many people can train at a time. But with everything that has gone on, the fire service as a whole adapts to its situations and overcomes. This is where the major paradigm shift has come in with fire department training across the nation.

Paradigm Shift

The fire service has been forced to rethink how fire departments offer training and how to maintain personnel standards during a pandemic. Online training has played an integral part in helping individuals achieve higher education, training, and new skill sets without the constraints of a set location. Most fire departments have been using some form of online training, but a lot of that training has been geared towards emergency medical services. Until recently, any fire-related training has been typically in the form of a face-to-face, hands-on approach.

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With the implementation of distance learning or online training, firefighters and departments have had the opportunity to reach more personnel in safer environments. This has allowed departments and personnel to keep their skills sharp and acquire or maintain certifications while distancing themselves from other people. Establishments such as the National Fire Academy have even transitioned from the traditional campus classroom setting to online-mediated learning and even Zoom classes. The unforeseen circumstance that led to this transition will be here to stay, but how effective is online learning vs. traditional learning?

Traditional Learning

Most firefighters are comfortable with the conventional platform of learning. The traditional model typically consists of one or two instructors in a classroom setting, an outline, a PowerPoint presentation, and a hands-on or skills portion that’s accomplished. One of the main benefits of this type of learning is instant feedback if a student has a question. This is especially apparent for any skills portion. The students get a chance to perform the skills, and if there is an issue can ask a question or get guidance right away. Also, student interaction with other students is a benefit that is not matched or equated with online learning environments. Developing friendships and building a rapport with other people is not the same online as it is face-to-face. From an instructor’s perspective, you can look at your audience and gauge how interested your audience is by their demeanor or body language. The instructor can read the nonverbal cues and make changes accordingly by steering the class in a different direction or allowing the class to break for a much-needed reprieve.

Online learning

Online learning comes in a few different variations. One of the online learning platforms is live streaming, such as Zoom. It mimics the style of a traditional learning environment but can be accessed from anywhere worldwide. This type of platform has some significant benefits. First, the student gets the feel of a traditional learning model they are familiar and accustomed to with an instructor teaching the material. The student can ask questions and receive instant feedback from the instructor and interact with other students in the class. Second, more people are reached with this type of platform. People can access it from home, the fire station, a coffee shop, etc. Most traditional classroom settings involve anywhere from 10-25 people per class. With an online learning platform, you can reach hundreds of people this way. Instead of teaching a fire station, you can teach a whole fire department at once.

Another online learning platform is online mediated. This platform mimics more of an online college class. The class has an assigned instructor, but they are more of a facilitator than a teacher when it comes to learning. The instructor puts out the material where the student paces themselves with learning the material. There are usually weekly assignments due, and an online discussion board is used for student/teacher interaction. The benefits are that the students can pace themselves and work on the learning material on their own time. They don’t need to be present for a three-hour interactive class.

What the Research Says

There is a general consensus in what the research says about the effectiveness of online learning vs. face-to-face. Overall, in many studies that I reviewed, the data showed no significant differences in students/participants’ scores or learning abilities compared to online vs. face-to-face. One key difference was that the students or participants liked completing individual written activities online but preferred to engage in class discussions in person (Kemp & Grieve, 2014). This makes perfect sense to most of us. Firefighters like to be around other firefighters. There is a certain camaraderie that we feel around each other. The fire station is the central location for that, typically the kitchen, but it translates into the training and classroom setting as well.   

The key to success varies from person to person, but one primary factor determining success in the classroom or training is personal application. “The researcher concluded that there was no difference in the learning success of students enrolled in the online vs. F2F course, stating that in terms of learning, students who apply themselves diligently should be successful in either format” (Paul & Jefferson, 2019). The concept of “you get what you put in” isn’t a new one, but people have to be more focused and on track in an online format than a traditional one. This is additionally true in an online mediated format where the instructor provides you with the course material. Student interaction with other students is solely on the platform through a message board or e-mail, so staying focused and keeping the timeline is up to the individual. Sticking to the schedule and working ahead is paramount if you want to be successful on this platform.

Moving Forward

The fire service as a whole has made the shift to online. Although it may have been a forced circumstance that set this shift in motion, the fire service does not appear to be going back to business-as-usual. Departments have seen some of the significant benefits from transitioning over. The realization that new technologies can offer learning platforms that provide suitable environments for implementing online courses with cost savings can not be underestimated. Money saved from a traditional learning platform into an online platform can be used for numerous other endeavors.

Fire departments shouldn’t be focusing solely on just pushing out training to meet their monthly requirements. Even though they may now have more access to personnel and can save money, they should be focusing on firefighter engagement and how that training is presented to them. Requesting input from training officers, company officers, and firefighters themselves will help formulate a more productive learning environment. Training personnel should always be quality over quantity.

When it comes to individual training online, many people are fully involved in the online platform. People have found that the traditional learning modality is restrictive, inflexible, and just not practical to their busy lives and health concerns. They have been taking advantage of the convenience and accessibility of the courses. Those of you who may be on the fence about taking an online class or getting a certification online, examine why you may be apprehensive. Is it because you don’t think you will learn the material or process it the same as a face-to-face class? I challenge you to embrace the paradigm shift taking place and be mindful that you can get the same benefit from online versus a traditional face-to-face course.

References

Kemp, N., & Grieve, R. (2014). “Face-to-face or face-to-screen? Undergraduates’ opinions and test performance in classroom vs. online learning.” Frontiers in Psychology, 5(1278), 1-10.

Paul, J., & Jefferson, F. (2019). “A Comparative Analysis of Student Performance in an Online vs. Face-to-Face Environmental Science Course From 2009 to 2016.” Frontiers in Computer Science, 1(7).

Daniel Vecchiolla is a captain for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire. He has been in the fire service for nine years and started his career working for the City of Chesapeake. He transitioned into the DoD system five years ago and is currently stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in public administration from Old Dominion University. He has his Fire Officer designation through the Center of Public and Safety Excellence (CPSE) and serves as a peer reviewer through the CPSE as well.

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