Virtual Fire Service Training: Increasing Attendance and Reducing Costs

By Kenn Fontenot

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom. It almost sounds as if we are attending a NASCAR Sunday afternoon race. With COVID-19 safety measures restricting in-person meetings, office work, and training sessions, distance digital contact has become a normal way of conducting business. Restrictions on access, number of people allowed to gather, and other concerns have severely affected the fire service. Training is one of the most important activities we participate in, but with these restrictions, it has become more difficult to conduct in-person sessions.

The Louisiana State University (LSU) Carrol L. Herring Fire & Emergency Training Institute is the state training agency for Louisiana. COVID-19 restrictions significantly affected instructors and programs over the past year, making it clear there was a need for an alternative method of providing training in order to keep our responders ready for the job.

Distance learning is not a new concept. For many years, colleges and universities have offered some form on tele-education for students. The fire service had some limited use of distance learning, but not on a widespread scale. Providing training from a remote location to students unable to attend in person appeared to be the solution to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

Another benefit is that the younger generation of firefighters we are training are proficient in digital technology and readily embrace this type of presentation. In the future, with the development of virtual reality programs and technology, this will become an important part of firefighter training.

The initial set up for the program at LSU was somewhat tedious, with student registration forms to design and the registration process to establish. Steve Billman and Nick Palmer, both full-time staff with the Carroll L. Herring Fire & Emergency Training Institute, were able to overcome the initial setup concerns and have now streamlined the process. Each class requires both an instructor and a moderator. Steve or Nick serves as the moderator for each session to ensure the registration and login process goes smoothly and monitor the class for any activities which might serve as a source of disruption. The moderators are as important to the program as the instructor is.

Topics for the programs consist of knowledge-based presentations only. Programs that require hands-on skills are not offered by LSU virtually at this time, although some agencies have successfully conducted these types of programs. Classes include subjects from the basic firefighter menu, such as fire behavior, safety, and advanced topics including officer development, strategy, and tactics.

Instructors are subject matter experts (SME) in the topic that they deliver. One of the benefits of distance presentation is that quality SMEs are able to teach from remote locations, broadening the pool of instructors our students can learn from. Outside agencies such as the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation will be instructing several future programs.

The presenter goes through a Zoom operations training before delivering their first class. The broadcast site must have sufficient internet speed and connectivity. This is necessary to ensure that there are no glitches in the presentation due to technology and instructor error.

Response from the fire community has been very positive. Attendance for the Zoom programs have averaged 300 per class compared to the 10-12 attendees we previously averaged for in-person sessions. Granted, the Zoom programs are done statewide as opposed to within individual departments, but the ease of access has been a significant factor in the program’s success. In addition, presentation cost per student has dropped exponentially.

There are still some issues being worked out. One unintended consequence is the overload of student registrations for the office staff to process and record. The large number of students attending each program has placed a heavy workload on the staff responsible for recording student attendance in the record system. The record system currently in place does not allow for easy merger of student attendance information.

As an instructor, the inability to be more interactive with the students has also been an issue. Being interactive in a virtual setting takes more work as instructors must simultaneously look at the students in the live video, pay attention to the slide presentation, and try to engage attendees. The first couple of presentations can be disconcerting, but practice can help overcome this problem.

While distance learning has proved to be an effective process to reach firefighters during the pandemic, this should not be the only method used once the restrictions are lifted. An online program cannot replace in-person, hands-on training. However, it has proved to be a valuable additional tool in our training toolbox that we should continue to utilize. New developments in virtual technology will also enhance an organization’s ability to provide quality online training programs in the future.

Kenn Fontenot is the National Volunteer Fire Council’s director from Louisiana and served for 14 years as the regional fire training coordinator at the Louisiana State Carrol L. Herring University Fire and Emergency Training Institute.