eLearning for Emergency Response

August 31st, 2015 by Christine Gentry

Continued training is imperative to maintaining a well-qualified, effective workforce – especially in emergency response fields where best practices evolve with every emergency.  Traditional training programs, however, may not always be the best approach.  Traditional training occurs in person, in real time, and often represents a large investment in paid time/lost productivity venue and travel expenses.  For those in the emergency management and public health fields, as well as first responders, this commitment in time and effort is not always possible.

Online training, or eLearning, provide effective and responsive workforce training anytime and anywhere.  ELearning generally refers to any type of instruction delivered via the internet or other network technology – such as webinars and self-paced courses, like the FEMA Emergency Management Institute (EMI) Independent Study courses.  ELearning allows a training course to include a variety of multimedia elements such as presentations and slides, interactive content, graphics, photos, audio, and video.  These courses are then delivered through a Learning Management System (LMS), web browser, or sent directly to the student via email.

A common perception of eLearning is that the lack of face-to-face interaction equates to a lack of engagement.  But even the most basic eLearning authoring software allows for a range of interaction with the material and even other students that is unparalleled in many crowded training sessions.  Students can directly connect with the trainer and other students in webinar-style courses through chat boxes or videoconferencing interface.  ELearning can also be used to create real-time simulations that function as tabletops and can be used to practice virtual emergency operations coordination such as would be needed in infectious disease incidents.

Instructional design of self-paced courses is inherently interactive.  The timeline in self-paced courses is student-propelled.  In other words, students themselves maneuver through interactive learning experiences.   Student engagement and retention can even be improved by gamification of materials.

Here are a few more of the advantages that eLearning tools bring to emergency operation workforce training:

  1. 24/7 Availability – ELearning courses are accessible to students anytime and anywhere. This flexibility allows students to learn at their own pace and revisit materials, while minimizing disruption to day-to-day work.
  1. Cost Effective – Learning online reduces the costs for trainers, travel, venue and technology rentals, printing and other materials, and catering. Developing the technology infrastructure required to launch an eLearning program usually requires comparatively small upfront costs and produces courses and materials that can be reused again and again.
  1. Scalable, Adjustable, and Responsive – ELearning content is easily adjustable to meet new needs. If best practices change, course content is easy to update and redeliver.  An in-depth course can easily be paired down and delivered as a Just-In-Time-Training during an incident.
  1. Comprehension Assessment – Traditional workforce training does not always assess student comprehension of materials. Evaluative interactive content, which provides feedback on student comprehension as well as the effectiveness of the course design, is easily inserted into eLearning courses.
  1. Staff Coverage – The nimble deliver of and flexible access to eLearning courses makes it possible to provide training to all staff, volunteers, and partners – not just those that can fit in a training room. It may also allow for broader incorporation of stakeholders spread out over a vast geographic region.

The Center for Health and Homeland Security recently developed a series of progressive, online courses for the Prince George’s County Health Department Public Health Emergency Preparedness program.  The series offers two targeted tracks of courses – one for leadership and one for general staff.   Leadership and staff will take a new course every quarter.  Each course is designed to capitalize on the interactive features available via online delivery and include assessment tools to measure comprehension of the subject matter and effectiveness of the course.

The first course to roll out is an Incident Command System Review for Public Health.  This review provides public health staff and volunteers, who do not regularly use the Incident Command System like Fire/EMS and Police, with an overview of the command system as it would be used in a public health-related response.  The assessment built into the course will shed light on improvement areas to be addressed in the next cycle of courses.

Naturally, eLearning is not suitable for all topic areas.  For example, taking an online course is no substitute for putting on personal protective equipment (PPE) for the first time or drilling with communications equipment.  The eLearning format though is ideal for training staff, volunteers, and partners on response plans and policies, emerging threats, and evolving best practices, as well as refreshing on basics such as the Incident Command System. By assessing preparedness gaps through exercises and real-world responses, and keeping in mind what topics are more appropriately covered in-person, emergency response may develop comprehensive online training curriculum to ensure all responders are on the same page before an exercise or real-world response, and improve overall response capabilities.

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