Turn an Idea into a Class in Five Steps

BY RICH RODEWALD

To say that providing up-to-date, relevant training in today’s fire service is a challenge is an understatement. Training officers and instructors must meet a variety of ever-changing requirements from the National Fire Protection Association, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the state as well as address local needs. How do they find the lesson plans and course materials to meet these challenges? What options do they have when they can’t find a lesson plan that meets their needs?

On the Internet, instructors can find individual lessons and the PowerPoint® presentations to download for free. That’s one of the great things about the fire service: Firefighters share. Many times, however, the downside is that the lessons are based on the specific needs of the department that created them and may not work well with your department’s procedures.

If you can’t find what you need for free on the Internet, you can purchase entire sets of lesson plans and course materials from commercial fire training companies. But these curriculum sets can be expensive and have a relatively short shelf life. We have probably all used a 10-year-old video that we wished was a little more up-to-date as part of a class.

Inevitably, your department will encounter a training need that requires you to develop your own class. How do you make that happen?

One option is to become certified at the fire instructor II level. Such certified personnel can develop individual lesson plans for a specific topic based on their department’s specific training needs. Fire instructor II personnel can also modify an existing lesson plan so that the class is tailored for their own department.1 Another option is to enroll in the National Fire Academy’s (NFA) “Fire Service Course Design” class. This six-day class is held on NFA’s Emmitsburg, Maryland, campus several times a year. It teaches many of the same concepts as the fire instructor II course but is a little more in-depth. The downside of both of these options is that you may wait months before being able to take one of these classes. 

FIVE-STEP DEVELOPMENT 

If your department has a training need that just can’t wait, here is a basic five-step approach to help you turn an idea into a good class.

First, what is a good class? Essentially, a good class meets student expectations, features subject matter-appropriate activities, presents content in a logical sequence, has well-constructed evaluation measures, uses current and relevant resources/media, and clearly states course requirements and objectives.2 Keep these principles in mind as you develop a course of your own.

Needs assessment. In developing a class, first perform a needs assessment and determine your training focus. Ask, “What is the problem?” Identify the gap between the way things are and the way things should be and how it can be addressed. Is it a training issue, a motivational problem, or a result of uncontrollable environmental factors? Asking why training is needed is a good technique. Firefighters will often tell you what they want rather than what they really need. Having them explain why they need some type of training often reveals the real, underlying need. (2)

Sometimes the needs assessment step is simple. For example, your department has a new ventilation saw that personnel need to train on. The new piece of equipment has created a training gap, not motivational or environmental factors.

Other times, there’s a gap in an existing department procedure. For example, your chief informs you that, in the past few months, numerous incorrect or incomplete fire reports have been submitted. You are directed to develop a class on the correct procedures for completing a standard fire report. The needs assessment will help you discover if it is really a technical problem with the station computers (environmental), if the reports are mostly coming from the same group of company officers who are known to be more worried about what’s for dinner than writing good reports (motivational), or if it is a matter of a legitimate lack of knowledge by those completing the reports (training).

If the problem is environmental or motivational, additional training will most likely not help bridge the gap between the way things are and the way things should be.

Finally, determine whether training will help the situation, and make recommendations on how to solve the problem.

Task analysis. In the second step, you identify your training target—i.e., the personnel who need the training (recruits, firefighters, driver/operators, EMS personnel, officers, and so on); the duty area the training covers (station duties, the fireground, EMS scenes); and the minimum skills, knowledge, and attitudes the student must exhibit to perform these tasks successfully. (2)

List the steps required to perform the task, and define the minimum standard for training achievement. For example, consider the task of launching a boat for a water rescue. The training target is the water rescue team. The duty area covered is water rescue emergencies. The minimum skills, knowledge, and attitudes are as follows: Students shall already have completed personal flotation device usage training, passed a basic swimming performance test, and have a strong desire and interest in water rescue.

The steps to perform the task would include all those involved in launching the boat from start to finish. The standard for measuring success could be a predetermined time limit to complete the task from the moment the boat trailer tires hit the water at the ramp to the moment the boat is underway. The task analysis step sounds tricky, but it’s important.

Goals and objectives.In step three, the course goal describes the expected outcome of this course—how it will help the target audience do its job better. (2) The written goal statement should include the topic, the audience, and the purpose of the course. Once you have your goal statement, you can work on your objectives. Measureable objectives should be part of any lesson you teach your students. They help the student know what to expect and help the instructor stay focused on the topic. When you write your objectives, it may be helpful to use the ABCD format (2):

  • Audience: Who will be performing the task?
  • Behavior: What does the learner have to do?
  • Conditions: Under what circumstances does the learner have to perform the task?
  • Degree: How will we judge if the learner has succeeded? 

An objective statement may be as follows: The firefighter (audience) shall raise a straight ladder to the window (behavior) in full personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus (conditions) at a speed consistent with fireground operations (degree).

Organize content.Once you have performed your needs assessment and task analysis and have set your goals and objectives, it’s time to organize your content. There are several ways to do so within a course, but a basic rule of organization is to sequence the course objectives, then sequence the content that meets each objective, then sequence the specific procedures within the content. Look for objectives that students must perform before others to set a logical sequence for the class.

Other useful strategies for organizing a course include easy-to-difficult, known-to-unknown, and whole-parts-whole. (2)

In the easy-to-difficult method, you simply present the basic information or skills first and then move to more difficult or complex information as the students progress. This process helps students gain confidence, especially when learning new concepts or skills.

The known-to-unknown method starts with material with which the students are familiar, followed by new material. This gets everyone on the same page, giving the students a short refresher before building on that knowledge base.

Whole-parts-whole begins with an overview of the information or demonstration of the entire skill in real time, then breaks down the parts, step by step, and finishes with a review and summary of the information or skill. This method is where we get the familiar idea, “Tell them what you’re going to teach them (whole), tell them (parts), and then tell them what you taught them (whole).”

Content organization is a great area in which to keep an open mind and seek the opinion of others on how best to organize the course. Share an outline of what you have put together, and get some feedback. It’s better to make changes at this point than after you have a finished product.

Evaluation plan. In the final step, design an evaluation plan to measure the degree to which the students, the instructor, and the course have met the objectives. You may evaluate students through written tests, hands-on skills demonstrations, learning activities, and so forth. You may give students written tests before the class and after completing the class, which will give you a good idea of the increase in the student’s knowledge as a result of what you taught.

You can evaluate the instructor using traditional student evaluations and instructor self-evaluations. Instructors can learn much about themselves and their teaching style by reviewing the student evaluations. Participants should also evaluate the course. These evaluations give the instructor valuable feedback about what is good about the program and what needs to be improved. 

••• 

Designing a class can be as difficult as it can be rewarding. It takes time, patience, and motivation to see a class through from idea to finished product. Instructors who are up for the challenge should strongly consider enrolling in a fire instructor II class or the NFA “Fire Service Course Design” class. In both courses, students learn how courses are created, organized, and evaluated and receive the tools needed to design their own classes. The five steps outlined above are just a part the NFA’s “Fire Service Course Design” nine-step design model. But this should give you who haven’t been able to achieve your fire instructor II certification or attend the NFA course a starting point from which to design your own class. 

Endnotes 

1. National Fire Protection Association 1041, Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications (2007 ed.), 3.3.2.2.

2. National Fire Academy, R129, Fire Service Course Design—One Week Student Manual(May 2001); pp. SM 1-3, SM 2-4, SM 3-3, SM 4-3, SM 4-4; SM 5-3.

RICH RODEWALD is a captain with the Council Bluffs (IA) Fire Department, where he has served for 14 years. As department drillmaster since 2008, he has coordinated and delivered training to the 100-member career department. Rodewald has been a field staff instructor for the Iowa Fire Service Training Bureau for the past 10 years and is a member of the Iowa Society of Fire Service Instructors. He has an associate degree in fire protection science from Iowa Western Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell College. 

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