Drills, recertifications and department training are everyday realities for first responders. But when drills become rote, recertifications become redundant and training loses that vital edge, first responders do not gain the skills and education they need to protect their communities.

Here are three critical ways department leaders can save lives and protect their team members by improving training.

1. Invest in Training That Bridges the Gap Between First Responder Knowledge and Industry Knowledge

First responder industries are evolving faster than ever before. Peter Densen, MD, estimates that in 2020, the world’s medical knowledge will double every 73 days. Fire departments today tackle fires that burn eight times faster and produce 200 times the amount of smoke than fires did 50 years ago, and first responders across the country are responding to natural disasters and mass casualty incidents at an unprecedented rate.

With this acceleration of emergencies and industry knowledge, there is an ever-widening gap between first responder knowledge and industry best practices. In our fast-paced world, traditional training practices are no longer enough. Department leaders need to invest in innovative, up-to-date training that bridges that gap and prepares first responders for the situations they will experience in the field.

When investing in training, departments should take time to ensure that any provider they work with:

  • Regularly updates and expands its content.
  • Has industry experts teach and review each course.
  • Has the courses and accreditations that meet their national and state requirements.
  • Focus on improving their team’s outcomes.

Ensuring these four characteristics will help the department move beyond training that merely meets compliance requirements to training that will have an impact on insurance rates, payee qualifications and the community.

2. Find Training That Is Flexible and Scalable and Meets Team Needs

No one can argue against better training that saves lives, but the practical question is: How and how much? First responders can’t simply add 20 hours of continuing education (CE) courses every year; they have limited time as it is. How can first responders prepare for the next call when the calls are coming faster than ever before?

Just as technology is helping with the acceleration of industry knowledge, it can also help with training solutions. Online CE provides training options that fit the realities of first responder life, enabling learners to build their skills during downtime at the station and to access the latest industry standards any time, anywhere and on any device. In addition, the flexibility of online training can allow departments to tailor their training plan to the specific needs of their team and their community.

Another constraint to consider is cost. In an industry that faces high turnover, depends on volunteers and is funded by taxpayer dollars, first responder training needs to be cost-effective. Online education is an effective and scalable way to keep first responders trained and ready for the next call. In one study, researchers found that computer learning and simulations reduce emergency preparedness training costs by 10%.

Department leaders should look for CE that focuses on continually refreshing their team’s skills rather than providing a one-and-done approach. In addition, training that teaches important topics in small, digestible segments allows for mastery of a topic before moving on. Unlike an all-day, eight-hour class, where learners are inundated with information, online education — when done right — breaks up concepts over weeks or months and improves retention.

Leaders should look for a training solution that segments training, tests competency frequently, audits course work by objective and allows them to track your personnel’s proficiency so they can provide early prevention. Rather than waiting until they’re in the field to discover their team members’ weaknesses, this approach helps ensure they have the skills and knowledge to provide critical care that saves lives.

3. Ensure That Training Improves Retention and Sharpens Skills

Another daunting challenge first responders face is retaining the knowledge and skills they have gained over years of practice and experience. A study focusing on how much scientific knowledge health care professionals lose over time found that “the evidence is consistent with the rule of thumb that after … one year, approximately one-third of the knowledge gain is lost, accumulating to slightly over one-half after a few years.”

Unlike doctors — who may be able to look up a dosage or symptoms during a visit — first responders in the field must act immediately and confidently. There is no time to brush up on a skill when lives are on the line. Responses must be automatic, especially when the stress and stakes are high.

About such moments, veteran paramedic Jason Haag says, “In moments of high stress, the body’s heart rate increases, as does peripheral vasoconstriction. This causes a loss in fine motor movement. This leaves us to rely on muscle memory during stressful situations.”

In moments like these, Haag notes, it is training — continual, intentional training — that can make all the difference. “This alone should be enough reason to not only prepare but train,” he says.

Department leaders should look for training that is engaging. The more team members interact with the training, the more they will retain. It’s also important to look for training that is multimodal and includes case studies and scenarios as well as instruction from experienced industry experts who can prepare learners for those critical, stressful situations.

It’s important to look for training options that tackle real-life problems and emerging industry needs so first responders have the tools they need to improve outcomes. Innovative training helps them stay current, build their skills and improve outcomes. When first responders are at their best, they can protect and care for their communities.