Computer-Based Training: An integral part of developing today’s firefighters

By Kevin Milan

Although hands-on class enrollment skyrockets each year at every major fire service conference, exhibit hall vendors proclaim computer-based training (CBT) is the answer to every training challenge. The troops want hands-on training, but vendors provide electronic solutions. At first, these two realities seem to be in direct conflict with each other; however, they do share a common ground: Like hands-on training, if applied properly, CBT can be an integral part of a blended approach to fire service learning.

CBT Issues
Instructors need robust records management; however, few systems allow us to directly import training records from learning software into department record-keeping software. Another problem: Few trainers understand the ins and outs of CBT. I for one am still waiting for the first quality class that teaches fire service instructors how to effectively integrate CBT into a training program. It seems that too many vendors are seeking to sell us a one-size-fits-all solution, without asking us what we need.

And when it comes to CBT acronyms, the fire service—an industry that loves acronyms—has met its match. Do you know the difference between an LMS (Learning Management System) and an LCMS (Learning Content Management System)? Which RMS (Records Management System) is the most reliable? Is Moodle a sport, a main course or an LMS?

Computer-based training is an important tool in our training tool box. We can use it for everything from pre-course assignments to watching a video to storing electronic forms—even to simulation training. But choose your program wisely. Bad online training is worse than no training at all.Photo Courtesy Wheat Ridge (Colo.) Fire Protection District


CBT Selection Questions
Other questions you may have: Should you buy an off-the-shelf training program or build your own modules? Does software exist that easily converts PowerPoint slides into an interactive online learning program?

As fire service trainers, we must remember who we work for: the line firefighter. This is an awesome responsibility, so we must apply the same litmus test to CBT as we do to any other training prop. Simply stated, we must ask, “Does this tool meet our needs better than any other on the market for the intended outcome?”

For example, when picking a forcible-entry prop, we look for realism, adaptability, quality and a long life span with little maintenance. We don’t use this prop to teach fire streams, and we don’t expect it to solve every possible forcible-entry problem.

Many vendors ask us to set aside our analytical approach and blindly purchase an entire “integrated” training system. But we can’t expect CBT to constitute the entire training program; it’s simply another tool in the box.

Computers = Hose?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge proponent of computers in training; we use them every day in emergency service training. This is important considering that our jobs grow more complicated each and every day.

Today’s firefighter must be well versed in everything from NIMS to EMS, while also staying current on building construction and fire suppression tactics and techniques. But we won’t be able to keep pace with the demands of our ever-changing job description if we use 1980s delivery models backed by pencil and paper, which is why the computer is as essential as fire hose in today’s fire service.

I can already hear Smitty, my favorite truck captain, responding to this statement. He’ll agree with me, but then argue, “Hose and computers are equally worthless. His truckies don’t need either one.” I’ll disagree and remind him that computers in training, like ventilation on the fireground, can make all the difference in the world if applied correctly.

CBT Applications
Below are a few examples of the blended learning approach we should consider when discussing CBT:
  • Using CBT for a pre-course assignment. Asking crews to complete an online ladders module prior to participating in a drill increases efficiency and effectiveness.
  • A recorded video conference covering required bloodborne pathogen training.
  • Placing all required reading for the upcoming engineer academy in an online classroom makes sense. Keeping current training forms electronically on SharePoint or a department website saves time.

Note: Although these applications are extremely useful, there are no shortcuts; quality online training takes time and money to develop. Some experts suggest a ratio of 72 hours of development for every hour of interactive online training. So the question remains, do you buy an off-the-shelf CBT to support training or do you build your own? Both solutions have advantages and pitfalls.

Canned Programs
If misapplied, the tactic of jumping head-first into CBT can be catastrophic. I speak from experience on this one; I nearly burned a slim training budget to the ground listening to a smooth sales pitch. I was told a single program could transform the volumes of content in my training bureau into effective interactive online learning with the click of a mouse. Upon further investigation, I learned that this was only half true. The content could be digitized, but it was neither effective nor interactive in an online format.

The downside of many canned programs is poor quality and adaptability. We simply don’t have the same equipment or standard operating procedures (SOPs) across the industry. Very few vendors provide exceptional material; many provide mediocre, repetitive, “plain vanilla” content.

Terrible online training is as bad as no training at all in my opinion. We have connoisseurs of training in each of our firehouses, and they do not, and should not, tolerate garbage. The surest way to undermine your training program is to replace drills with hours of mindless videos. Tip: Be extremely selective in choosing any canned content, and be certain that it can be customized to your equipment and SOPs.

On the Bright Side
The upsides of a well thought-out, high-quality CBT is increased efficiency and effectiveness. Like choosing a career or a training prop, the key is to make an informed, deliberate decision that’s grounded in reality. If a vendor promises to solve your every training problem for a low subscription rate, be very afraid.

Remember: Define the purpose of computers in your training program before seeking a CBT solution. Then you can select or build the best set of solutions to meet your objectives. If applied correctly, CBT enhances, but does not replace, fire service training.


Kevin Milan is president of the Colorado Fire Training Officers Association and director at large for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Kevin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program, holds a master’s degree in Executive Fire Leadership, and is a doctorial student in the Fire and Emergency Management Program at Oklahoma State University. With 19 years of fire experience, he is a training officer for South Metro (Colo.) Fire Rescue with previous experience as an architectural project manager and classroom teacher.



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