Like all public sector organisations, emergency services the world over have had to adapt and evolve quickly. Tighter budgets, governance changes, and unprecedented shifts in demand through acts of terrorism, climate change and demographic variations have meant that responders are facing daily challenges requiring new skills and new styles of leadership.
The result of this is a sea-change in training requirements that starts with the needs of the organisation (and subsequently those of the individual responder), through to the design and delivery of behaviour-changing training. Very few organisations can afford to effect change alone which is leading to an increasing number of long-term, sustainable partnerships established with training management providers that are helping to deliver change.
Collaboration is key
It’s rare for responders from any agency to work in isolation. Whether it’s responding to an emergency such as a structural fire, transport incident, civil unrest, or undertaking the vital work of public engagement in helping to prevent emergencies, they will be working with other services, local and national agencies and, increasingly, voluntary groups. To train without recognition of this multi-agency environment is to miss a vital component of what it means to be a modern firefighter. This requirement for collaboration is reflected across the fire and rescue service in the UK through embryonic strategic and operational alliances with bodies such as the Chief Fire Officers Association, the College of Policing, the National Ambulance Resilience Unit and the Local Government Association. Impetus from ministerial support is also provided through programmes such as the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme.
As financial pressures continue to drive change in the UK, it becomes harder to predict what might happen with our own model and whether, in ten years’ time, there will still be more than 40 fire and rescue services. A number of influential reports have recently discussed the possibility of government reform and suggested the possible emergence of a new, centralised multi-agency body. But what is happening in the UK is not necessarily representative of the critical services market internationally, so perhaps looking further afield will give a sense of how the market may evolve.
Many nations already operate combined emergency service models and can provide extensive learning for both the benefits and possible pitfalls of such strategies. However, the one thing you never ever hear is that responders should train and operate in silos. What is vital in a country where organisational links are sometimes difficult is that training providers need to be agile and ready to deliver products that work for any emergency service, as well as being adaptable to suit the needs of tomorrow.
Engagement with the wider response community helps training providers keep ahead of the game allowing individual services to strengthen their own operations’ core competencies and capabilities of their staff. Put simply, collaboration is key.
Across the training world, increasing emphasis is being placed upon such partnerships. By working with multi-sector professional/industry associations and experts, training programmes are being created to reflect and support current and emerging operational doctrine and guidance. Recognising that training forms a fundamental part of an individual’s personal and professional career development has always been central to the design of training, but the new emphasis on collaboration and interoperability means that providers, such as the Fire Service College, must now take on a partnership role themselves.
Many organisations still choose to develop, administer and deliver training programmes within the silos of their own geography, knowledge and experience. This can produce excellent training delivery and a sense that local risks are being addressed. Unfortunately, unless exceptionally managed, it also risks missing opportunities to collaborate across agencies and with those further afield who just might have value to offer. It’s also true that much of the burden surrounding training can be outsourced to release as much resource for training and service delivery as possible. After all, it is service delivery that the public truly value and believe that they are paying for.
Back office components such as administration, organisational and individual analysis of training needs, recording of individual competencies all lend themselves to realising an economy of scale not available to many organisations alone. Add this to the time-consuming rigours and costs of accreditation, assessment and assurance and it starts to become apparent just how much some organisations are unwittingly spending on relatively hidden back office services. Working in partnership allows programmes of training that both bridge skills gaps across services, as well as providing clear career paths for individuals. But how can any organisation’s training provision break free from the inevitable pressure on quality brought about by restricted budgets?
Flexible and cost effective
It is more important than ever that emergency services are offered flexible and cost effective training. There is always the risk that financial and time pressures start to fragment previously excellent delivery of local training solutions. While there is always going to be the need to tailor learning and development, organisations need the confidence that their staff are working towards nationally and internationally recognised standards. Importantly those standards need to be current and relevant, but will also withstand the scrutiny of hindsight should things go wrong. Accreditation to a standard created by a single organisation, or only recognised by a small number, brings a risk. But exacting standards can be both costly and beyond reach, unless achieved collaboratively or through sector-wide bodies. Delivery of training to such standards in, or near, the place of work and during normal working hours has to be the target.
In many respects it shouldn’t matter whether the individual is based 50 miles from a training facility, or 5,000 miles away. These days, staff expect to be able to learn in a way that suits them, at a time and place that is convenient to them. Classrooms, text books and practical exercises may still have their place, but people respond to different styles of delivery when it comes to learning and development.
One of the visions for the Fire Service College is to establish a network of national, regional and sub-regional centres of excellence. This will guarantee a quality of accredited training previously only available centrally, but will effectively place it on the door-step or within services. Underpinning that vision has to be substantial investment in supporting technology.
Engaging with like-minded people via social media, playing games with our friends (and strangers) online, booking appointments via text and logging-on to an account to check our child’s attainment at school – it’s all part of the norm these days. This has to be reflected in the way we programme, deliver and record training.
Practice makes perfect
The ultimate goal may be to provide a one-stop-shop learning approach. Development of what is becoming known as ‘The Fire Professional Framework’ in the UK seeks to provide a learner journey from recruitment, right up to strategic command of major multi-agency incidents. An individual could enrol in an intensive residential training course mimicking the shifts of a firefighter. This could be followed up with a short course designed and accredited nationally but delivered locally to develop leadership, incident command and decision-making skills which might be supported by an e-learning package for completion at the individual’s convenience. Supported by a team of seasoned and experienced professionals, this blended approach provides a secure, discrete, learning environment where individuals have the ability to practice decision making over, and over again without the risk of spiralling costs.
The College recently launched its immersive, 3D training suite to test and exercise incident commanders at all levels across all blue light services. So far, it has developed 16 scenarios for training and accrediting operational commanders and is now being developed further to enhance tactical training packages. The technology provider, G2G3, has provided serious gaming and simulation software for learning and development use. This includes structural fires, transport emergencies, Hazmat and CBRN scenarios – this state-of-the-art technology can be delivered locally via a portable 3D package supported by accredited assessors. This methodology places delegates at the heart of an incident in a realistic environment, often provoking emotions and reactions seen during physical training exercises. Importantly however, it overcomes the cost and logistical barriers normally associated with staging physical training exercises involving all emergency services. Most importantly, there is no cost of failure. It’s OK to get it wrong on the journey. What’s important however is that delegates don’t get that ‘ticket to command’ until they are demonstrating consistent and reliable decision making.
While practical experience is invaluable to firefighters, it’s not possible to prepare for every potential scenario. Rehearsals for major incidents for example, are incredibly complex, time-consuming and expensive. Even repeating controlled live training exercises drains both resource and budgets. Delegates often need an environment where they get a sense of the pressure that comes with their role yet also offers them a realistic and safe environment to make decisions and take control. Immersive and virtual reality technology provides an affordable, and portable, solution to this problem but will be outside the budget of many organisations. Again, collaborative sourcing and accredited delivery can provide opportunities simply not available to single responder organisations.
No silver bullet
The challenge we have, then, is that emergency services aren’t operating in a stable environment. The pace of global change means that there isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to training. This change relates to the new experiences responders are facing on a daily basis; new regulations and best practice, equipment and – of course – rapid developments in technology. There can’t be a one size fits approach to training because every service will – in effect – be operating in a unique environment. What can be provided and must be insisted upon as standard however is quality, assessed, accredited and assured ongoing training delivered wherever it suits you by a trusted partner.
For more information, go to www.fireservicecollege.ac.uk