What is in this article?:
- Onieal on Technology, Curriculum Changes at National Fire Academy
- Possible Changes to the Executive Fire Officer Program
The National Fire Academy makes changes to its online and on-campus curriculum to meet modern demands.
(Appeared in print as "Top Honors")
The National Fire Academy is facing another budget cut for 2013. While that’s bad news, there still is good news coming from the academy.
NFA Superintendent Denis Onieal discusses with FIRE CHIEF the state of the academy, including changes to its outreach programs, its ability to support to fire departments, and the effect of budget cuts.
What’s new at the NFA?
We’re in the process of developing 25 new courses in all curriculum areas, and 11 of those are fire-prevention related — from the management of fire-prevention programs to public education and technical skills. That’s 44% of our resources and efforts.
We know prevention works, but we also realize that, under the current economic stresses, fire departments are cutting to the bone. In many cases, fire prevention and training suffer the most in tough economic times. These new training programs are designed to help those local departments — from model programs from community risk reduction to juvenile fire-setters, from developing policy and legislation to engaging community support, from campus fire safety to working with people of different cultures.
In addition, Congress authorized us to expand into EMS curriculum. For years, we nibbled at the edges of EMS simply because we were never authorized to deliver the training. Now we are. Much like our fire curriculum, we’re doing the advanced courses you can’t get anywhere else, from hot topics to quality assurance. We’re updating our management and leadership courses in EMS, and including EMS modules in other relevant courses.
Of course, our traditional courses continue. We’ve completely revised every course in the fire-investigation, incident-management and hazmat curriculums. We’ve reduced the technology requirements in our simulation training, so we can begin offering simulations off campus just like we do on campus. The incident-command curriculum is entirely revised; we’re not only fires — we’re all hazards.
The short answer is that we are constantly changing and adapting; it’s not your father’s National Fire Academy anymore.
There have been tremendous changes in education and training. How is the National Fire Academy keeping up?
We offer courses from 10 minutes to 10 days [in duration], in classrooms and online, in residence in Emmitsburg and off campus through our state fire training system partners. In 2011, we trained more than 110,000 students, mostly off-campus and online.
Like most schools, we struggle with those kinds of changes — we’re always seeking to get the right mix. Not everything can be taught online, and not every subject requires a 10-day classroom-based course. The process begins with a few classic questions: What is it we want the student to know, or to be able to do? How will we measure that knowledge and performance? What is the best method of delivery, in classroom or online, in residence or off-campus?
Most educational research today will tell you that if you begin with the premise that you’re going to develop a classroom-based course or an online course (method before outcome) you’re going to fail.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Recently, I had an interesting experience. My granddaughter is 10 years old. She has a Nintendo DS game, her own cell phone (grandfathers can buy those things), and her own laptop computer. I asked her if she can do online school work, and she showed me her grammar school’s Web page with supplementary exercises/learning games that the students can do from home. Each teacher and class has their own Web page, and it’s updated according to what the students are doing that week.
Just to see her reaction, I handed her a 3¼-inch data diskette and asked her what it was. She looked at it, turned it around, and shook her head. She didn’t know; she’d never seen one. Now I loved those 3¼-inch diskettes because you could stick them in your shirt pocket. You can’t do that with a CD, and I always lose thumb drives; the 3¼-inch diskette was large enough not to lose it.
So, I guess our biggest challenge is making sure that — unlike the diskette — we continue to adapt to change at the NFA, because my granddaughter can become a firefighter in about nine years. We have to be working with our current learners while preparing for our next generation of learners. That means bringing in new courses and new delivery methods.
Why should local fire chiefs consider sending their members to the academy’s campus when so much of your training is offered locally?
There are several reasons. First of all, our locally delivered courses are very good. We have top-notch instructors. They’re experienced and street-smart; they’ve been there and done that.
The challenge is the audience. The students generally are from the same area, they do things in similar ways and they’re comfortable working together. We design those off-campus courses for that kind of audience. An instructor isn’t going to arrive, teach for two days and change a whole lot of minds. Those instructors are going to make things better and improve technique, but they aren’t going to change a lot of hearts and minds.
Our on-campus courses are more adventurous; they challenge students about the way they do things and encourage them to look at problems in different ways. Our on-campus courses are more in-depth and transformative in nature — they’re designed to change students’ thinking. In order to do that, we put people are in classrooms with people they’ve never met. They don’t wear uniforms and they don’t have rank. They’re all equal and they’re all equally challenged. In those classrooms, everyone does things differently back home — they’re from different places. That’s the value of the resident program.
Finally — while it shouldn’t be the deciding factor — a consideration during these tough budget times is that our training is inexpensive, but less expensive than most. We cover the cost of round-trip airfare, and give students a dorm room and the training at no cost. All students pay for is meals, about $125 per week. Of course, there are back-fill and salary/benefit costs for the local department, but they would have those costs for any training, even in-house training. So the NFA is a pretty good deal.