Last month at the Arizona Fire Instructors Conference, I and another fire-magazine editor participated in a panel discussion about fire-service instructors and training. My colleague commented that PowerPoint presentations are outdated, adding that a good presenter knows how to keep an audience interested without resorting to slides or clever graphics. I disagreed because most firefighters are visual learners; seeing the words on a screen can help make the message stick.
The conversation certainly highlighted how times have changed. At fire conferences in the mid-1980s, many speakers brought their presentations on transparent sheets that were placed on light boxes and projected onto screens. If a speaker appeared with pieces of paper or a stack of note cards, attendees quickly slipped into staring mode. Rare was the speaker who could hold an audience for more than an hour without props.
When it was released, PowerPoint quickly raised the quality and entertainment value of presentations — adding colorful backgrounds, bullet points and even video clips — and became an easy method to distribute copies of presentations. I was at another conference recently in which all presenters but one used PowerPoint. (Did the audience of that lone non-PowerPointer feel a sense of dread?)
Now, a multimedia tsunami is available to viewers in their homes and offices, on their computers and smartphones, and in their vehicles with live and on-demand programs. And we expect the same entertainment and engagement in any program or class, online or at a conference.
Training in the fire and emergency response services has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, both because of increased technological capabilities and the increased demands on the fire service.
Richard Jaehne, director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute, cited several demands that have changed training officers’ jobs: increased diversity of the missions; limited operational experiences; reduced response times due to higher temperatures and quicker flashovers due to modern contents; and increased mutual aid/interagency cooperation.
The fire service is a hands-on industry made up of Kinesthetic, i.e., tactile learners. Firefighters want to be actively involved — witness the number of volunteers who show up for drills compared to those who show for a talk.
Earlier this year, National Fire Academy Superintendent Denis Onieal said that fire-service instructors today understand that they are working with adult learners and can’t use the teaching methods traditionally used with children. “Great fire service instructors know that adults need to be engaged in their own learning — they’re poor passive learners,” he said.
According to Onieal, rookie firefighters have more computer skills than most 45-year-old training officers. Training instructors may be challenged by Web-savvy firefighters, but such firefighters are more willing to work in teams — even diverse teams — and collaborate on a project. Previous generations tended to study independently, so fire instructors first had to train firefighters on how to work as a team.
If you consider the increasing importance of fire science and research, instructors and training officers have more information and knowledge to deliver to the fire and emergency service personnel than ever in the history of the fire service. A good instructor knows his students, his topics, and the most effective way to deliver his message or lesson before heads bow and focus shifts to texting or e-mails.