Fire services embrace online technology

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With the discipline constantly evolving, many modern fire services are embracing technology for personnel development and training.

Not only are the costs significantly cheaper than on-site visits, but the online approach also deals neatly with one of the fire services biggest hurdles… geography. Our exclusive technical writer, Mark Fletcher reports:

The fire service is one of those traditional institutions that can really reap the benefits from modern, contemporary training.

As fire-fighting technology and tactics evolve, to fight fires ever more effectively – and with less risk and danger to personnel and property – this level of training needs to be commensurate with these advances.

Most modern metropolitan services have significant training and development facilities, as do those offering fire-fighting services at district, region and county levels.

However, these more dispersed services do fall foul of geography and location; significantly adding to both the costs and time needed to bring fire fighters up to standard.

It used to be that the only ‘proper’ way to train a fire fighter was to send them to a training centre, often miles away and then lose them as a ‘man unavailable’ often for large periods of time. It is for these reasons that the whole idea of eLearning really appeals to the service in all countries.

Sometimes there is no alternative to hands on training, however, using online technology, not only can the initial training preparation and learning be achieved remotely, it can also be done at the station, keeping manning levels to an optimum in case of emergencies.

‘Fire Buyer’ spoke to Paul Flaherty, Assistant Director Planning and Development at Kent Fire & Rescue Service in the UK to see how this geographically-dispersed service has embraced modern technology and how it has revolutionised the way it trains its officers at all levels of the service using contemporary software and internet based solutions.

“One of our primary concerns is the size of Kent. At 1,500 square miles it is large area to cover both in terms of fire fighting services, but also in terms of training and development, hence the need for a decentralised approach.

“About four years ago,” he continues, “we developed a new staff competency system for staff training and from the outset we developed an online approach to cater for the geographical dispersion of our staff and officers. At this early stage, we also recognised a need for IT training as most of the online work we were doing needed basic familiarity with some of the more popular software packages, especially those from Microsoft, such as word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Once the groundwork was in place we identified what training could best exploit it and what would of most use. We wanted the students to actually interact and not just learn from the initial academic training on offer.

“To handle the curriculum and individual records we turned to PDR PRo (www.pdrpro.co.uk),” he elaborates, “a software suite covering incident recording, training, course management and personal development records.

This was also coupled to a more integrated communications strategy, which involved the implementation of web cams, not only for training but also for video conferencing.”

To give you an idea of the type of courses Kent Fire & Rescue service is now able to offer, a three-day incident command course for senior personnel now comprises three eLearning modules totalling 20 hours that must be completed prior to attendance at a training facility.

At probationary level, all fire fighters have to undertake 43 eLearning modules over a two year period, where they have access to all the information online as well as direct face-to-face access to their tutors via the webcams.

All assessments, testing and retesting are based on the open-source Moodle software (http://moodle.org/) a free course management system that is used to create effective online learning sites, ensuring the non-duplication of questions relating to course materials.

On top of the basic functionality offered by Microsoft operating systems, there are many specially designed software suites available that offer face-to-face video and interactive capabilities.

Tandberg (www.tandberg.com), parts of Cisco Systems, offers one designed specifically for video conferencing and interaction. There are also other packages such as Skype (www.skype.com), Webex (www.webex.com), also part of Cisco, and Benntec (www.benntec.de), which offer video conferencing and document/desktop sharing.

“For more advanced online training at command level,” Flaherty elaborates, “we also use a package from VectorCommand (www.emergencycommandsystem.com). Indeed Kent Fire & Rescue Service is one of its biggest users in the UK.” VectorCommand offers software packages including Command Support System and Tactical Command Trainer, which offer an in-depth graphical environment, based on real-world situations, which can be used to play out a fire-fighting scenario with multiple options for deployment, visualisation and command decisions.

Used by many agencies in the UK, the software is also deployed across much of Australia and New Zealand’s fire and rescue services, the USA, Qatar Petroleum and Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency. The company’s Tactical Command Trainer is the only fire training system in the world that has been validated by both the UK Fire Service College and the US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Like most fire services worldwide, training in the UK is prescribed and agreed at a national level and adheres to wider standards (in most cases) – in this instance from the EU.

Official qualifications are also available in the UK, such as National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and those from BTech. Professional development is also encouraged through the Institute of Fire Engineers, which delivers European level qualifications.

“Psychology also plays a huge part in the training we offer,” Flaherty explains, “both fire fighters and members of the public can react very out of character in certain situations and can do things that hinder the rescue efforts. A lot of the burns we see are related to people re-entering buildings after raising the alarm, something which is hugely discouraged. In the case of fire fighters we try to instil a sense of responsibility to assess and manage the scene prior more personnel arriving, when it can be dealt with properly with the right equipment and the right level of manpower.”

In all instances, even a basic level of IT infrastructure can enable the adoption of highly effective eLearning capabilities.

Many agencies, certainly in the UK, are ahead of the curve when it comes the adoption of internet-based learning. It is the inexorable trend of IT adoption that will make this service even better in the future and promote what Flaherty calls the all important proactive approach to fire fighting.

 

 

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