Interactive Scenario-Based Training

BY KIRK TURNER

In August 2006, I was asked to join the Arlington (TX) Fire Rescue Department’s Training Division. It was a hard decision for me, since I had been a line officer at a great station with a great crew for years. After several weeks of contemplation, I accepted the offer and made the switch to the dreaded eight-hour days.

Alan Kassen, assistant chief in charge of operations, and Bill McQuatters, battalion chief in charge of training, mandated me to improve our method of delivering fire continuing education requirements (CEs). Our then-current method was mostly online “Quick Drills,” which a firefighter would read and take a test on. It was an effective but somewhat boring way to acquire hours. We supplemented this with our Fire Training Officer (FTO) program, which we developed in the Training Division and then handed them off to our captains for delivery.

Since our department could provide live or recorded broadcasts directly to our 16 stations on our local cable channel, I began formulating a way to use this capability as a training medium. My goal was a live broadcast in which we would interact with each other while covering various training topics. We had to overcome some roadblocks to actually do a live broadcast.

We needed relevant, repeatable content in an enjoyable format. On top of that, we needed some sort of studio setup and the technological know-how to pull the broadcast off. After a lot of planning and preparation, we were finally ready for our first run at Interactive Training.

Interactive Training is a scenario-based training system. Our crews remain in service in their stations and tune in on their station TVs to our training channel, provided by our local cable system. The crews use their portable radios during the scenarios and use the station telephone for a teleconference at the end of each scenario. We use a fire simulation program that we plug into our broadcast system to show pictures of structures and then overlay with fire, smoke, and various other visual stimuli (photo 1).

Click to Enlarge
(1) Photo by Rene Segura.

We simulate a dispatch for a specific type of call on the radio, switch to the computerized fire scene view, and then simply select a unit at random to be “first in.” That unit’s officer or designee gives a size-up on the portable radio, and we are off and running. After the first unit is on-scene, we assign other units at random to the call. We have the units arrive as they would at a real incident by announcing on the radio that they “are on.” The incident commander (IC) must communicate with these arriving units; in turn, they must act and respond as they would normally for the given situation. Since units are assigned to the call at random, the station crews have no idea who is next. They must pay attention and discuss among themselves how they would handle the next assignment if they are dispatched. This unknown factor keeps every station crew engaged. The crews have their copy of our standard operating procedures (SOPs) out, and one member is usually at the dry-erase board mapping out the command structure as the scenario progresses.

One month prior to the live broadcast, we e-mail our Interactive Training Bulletin to every member in our Operations Division. This four-page bulletin includes content and tactical tidbits to encourage our crews to review and brush up on the broadcast’s training topic’s relevant SOPs, skills, and so forth. I write the bulletin, filling it with “food for thought” statements, questions, and applicable SOPs. I strive to write it in down-to-earth firefighter language and make it easy to read. We want to prepare our people to succeed before putting them in the hot seat.

 

INITIAL DISPATCH AND ASSIGNMENT

 

The training begins with the station crews watching our broadcast. We review the topics we will be covering during that session and go over the rules one more time. They then wait for the scenario to begin with their portable radios on. After we finish our introductions and the review portion, our broadcast channel displays the department’s logo just prior to the scenario’s start. The crews then hear the dispatch on their portable radios.

“Units, respond to apartment fire at 123 Main Street.”

After broadcasting the initial radio dispatch, we wait about 20 seconds to allow the crews to think about the incident to which they have been dispatched. We then show a view of an apartment fire. We allow the crews to digest this view for about 30 seconds, then announce on the portable radio, “Engine 5 (random), you are on.” Engine 5’s officer then gives a size-up, including actions being taken, rapid intervention crew status, and so forth.

After a normal amount of time, we assign by radio another random crew to the scene. That company’s officer announces on the radio that his crew is on-scene. At this point, the officer either takes command or the first officer on the scene assigns the second company a function, depending on the situation presented and our SOPs. This process is repeated over and over as we assign more units and the command structure grows. If a crew that is active in the scenario is dispatched on a real call, we hear it in the broadcast booth and simply assign another crew to replace that unit.

We manipulate the scenes that the crews in the stations see based on actions that the units take (e.g., we add or remove fire and smoke). We show different views of the incident to simulate the information gathering. We can also interject information into the scenario by radio, announcing, “All crews: Dispatch is receiving calls from inside apartment 206 reporting that the occupant is trapped in that unit.”

We conduct most of our scenarios using just five to seven units, a one-alarm assignment in our department. However, we have pushed scenarios as far as five alarms. We have had as many as 18 of our 22 crews participating at once. On all of our incidents, the IC sets up the command structure according to our SOPs, using all the incident command system functions. Within this command structure, other units are used as the functional components and run their area accordingly.

At this point, the scenario begins to take on a life of its own, with crews communicating on their portable radios, making assignments, and relaying information just as on a real scene. At larger scenarios, one problem is the volume of radio traffic. Since there is so much radio traffic between the crews, it’s difficult to find enough radio air time to assign new crews. Since this is also a problem at actual large-scale scenes, we know the drill is realistic.

We encourage station officers to designate different crew members as the officer for different scenarios. This is a really good tool to develop newly promoted or soon-to-be-promoted members. It allows them to conduct the crew’s business on the radio with a more senior member at their side as a consultant. Having these members step up and participate allows them to see the incident from a tactical perspective rather than just from a task-oriented one.

Our first broadcast involved one camera, one telephone, one portable radio, one moderator, two computers, and a lot of nervous energy. Rene Segura, our media technician, handled the controls behind the scene while I acted as moderator. Training staff members helped with everything from lights to monitoring actual dispatches, because we had to keep up with crews that were responding to actual calls.

The four-hour broadcast included nine fire scenarios and subsequent discussions. It concluded with high-fives, cheers, and one very dry mouth! We continued the broadcast for the next two shifts with the same excellent results. In three days, we successfully provided our quarterly quota of fire CEs to 80 percent of our department, and everyone remained in their stations and in service. Best of all, it was good training, and the crews loved it!

 

TELECONFERENCE DISCUSSION

 

Our program has since expanded to include a panel of fire officers who sit in the studio and help with the question/answer session at the end of each scenario. They assist in the broadcast’s logistics and moderate the live teleconference-style discussions. We call the officers who participated in the scenario in the order that they arrived and ask them to explain their thoughts and actions. These discussions have proven to be one of the most beneficial aspects of this training. During this teleconference, the moderators must avoid interjecting their opinions, especially if they differ from our SOPs. The moderator must remain objective and guide the discussion with tact, respect, and facts based on the SOPs. The audience will offer different opinions that often spur discussion outside of Interactive Training; they have led to quite a few operational and SOP changes in our department.

During the teleconference, we ask firefighters and other nonofficers specific task-level questions to help keep them involved such as, “What specific tools would you take to force entry into that structure?” and “What is our department’s evacuation signal, and what are the appropriate actions you take when you hear it?”

We question our apparatus operators regarding apparatus operations; that includes hydraulics from time to time!

Everyone is encouraged to call in with their opinions about the scenario and how it went, but the moderator must be careful to keep the discussion respectful and safe for everyone.

Interactive Training allows every member throughout the department to watch, listen, comment on, and learn from every other member on their shift. Interactive Training has created communication in our department. Our entire department actually talked with and listened to each other. Of course, everyone was cautious and didn’t want to mess up in front of their peers, but once the format proved to be safe, the entire department opened up.

Having the entire shift participating in and watching the actions and discussions has added a degree of continuity to our department’s emergency scene operations. It’s like turning a battleship. It may take a while, but eventually the ship is pointed in the right direction.

We replay the broadcasts in a loop for several weeks following the initial broadcast, allowing firefighters who were off-duty at that time an opportunity to see what they missed. They can document that they watched the replay and receive one-half of their quarterly CE credit.

Now the station TVs are tuned to our Training Channel instead of other programming. The station crews had fun making fun of me and the questionable tactical decisions made by some, but they also were exposed to many great new ideas, and they were talking. At times, it was like watching a train wreck; at other times, it was like watching a skilled pilot make a one-wheel landing.

 

FEEDBACK

 

I usually receive anywhere from 20 to 50 e-mails and phone calls following each quarter’s training. Most of the calls concern tactical suggestions or explanations of actions callers had taken on a certain scenario. This allows for more personalized interaction outside of the broadcast venue. This communication is just one of the many unforeseen benefits of Interactive Training.

We recently incorporated EMS training into the program with a mass-casualty incident. This training crossed over the fire/EMS fence in a way that allowed us to maintain the best features of Interactive Training while helping us to meet our ever-expanding EMS training needs.

Remember, however, that Interactive Training will never take the place of hands-on training, but as far as our department is concerned, it’s the next best thing. No form of computer-based training even comes close. Sitting in a classroom with other crews and an instructor has a place, but even that falls far short of this comprehensive, all-shift training in which crews remain in their districts, in service, and actually talk to each other.

 

•••

 

Interactive Training may seem like a complicated program for most departments to implement, but it’s not as hard as it sounds. I admit it was a challenge to get that first broadcast done, but it was worth the effort. We’ve addressed and streamlined many broadcast issues since our premiere. If we can do it in Arlington, Texas, with a training staff of three civilians and three uniformed members, you can do it, too. If you supply cable TV to all your stations, have basic audiovisual equipment at your training center, and have enough determination to make a real difference in the way you train, you can do it. The possibilities are endless.

KIRK TURNER is a lieutenant with the Arlington (TX) Fire Rescue Department, where he has served with the Training Division since 2006. He joined the department in 1986 and served nine years as a lieutenant with Engine 1. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of North Texas.

 

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