Realistic hands-on training is perhaps one of the most proactive steps that can ensure emergency response personnel are equipped to counter the challenges of hazardous materials and CBRN incidents.
The events of the past twelve months however have been quite unlike anything ever experienced before, with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic placing unprecedented pressure on training budgets and on the way in which programs of instruction are delivered.
In mid 2020, FireRescue1 conducted a survey of its members to explore how fire departments were managing the challenges of staffing, purchasing, funding and training in the midst of the global crisis.
COVID-19's financial impact on the fire service
The respondents represented a broad range of fire service personnel across organizations of all sizes, with the majority (62%) working in departments of 50 staff members or less, 16% working in departments of 51-100 members, 14% in departments of 101-500 and 8% in departments exceeding 500 staff.
Just over a quarter of those surveyed (26%) said that they expected their department to experience staffing reductions as a result of the pandemic, while 43% predicted that there would be the need to reduce or eliminate some or all of their non-response services such as fire prevention and training.
When questioned more specifically about the impact of cutbacks on training, 51% anticipated that there would be a reduction in the provision of hands-on training and seventy six percent expected to see a substantial drop in funding for travel to state conferences and local, regional and national training events.
Respondents were asked which specific departmental purchases they predicted would be most affected.
Topping the list was the purchase of new apparatus at 47%, while 44% expected future training to be either delayed or canceled altogether.
Twenty nine percent believed there would be a reduction in the purchasing of mobile computers and software and 19% predicted cutbacks on purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Commenting on the survey findings, Fire Rescue 1's Executive Editor Fire Chief Marc Bashoor emphasized the adverse impacts of choosing to delay the purchase of equipment, pointing out that such actions risked becoming "exponentially worse year over year" and that "getting back on track would be critical."
He also encouraged departments to prioritize expenditure early, with the purchase of vital safety equipment and gear being "one of the last things" to be shut down.
Unparalleled operational challenges
Now six months on from the FireRescue1 survey, what signs are we seeing of the new approach to training in response to COVID-19?
In an article for International Fire Fighter in December 2020, Kevin Keeler of the International Safety Training College (ISTC) described the new measures being taken by his organization to deliver safe and effective training.
Keeler cited the transition from classroom training to a new expanded range of e-learning programs and assessments.
He also emphasized the focus on safety protocols, with safe distancing, specialist cleaning, the use of new personal protective equipment and temperature control monitoring now forming part of the daily routine.
"Unlike a tornado or other emergencies, Covid-19, lingers, leaving us all uncertain about the next steps," Keeler said.
"We feel an obligation to support our students who are mostly frontline personnel who by virtue intervene in emergency situations, save lives or prevent incidents from happening as part of their daily routine.
"As we find ourselves in a new safety reality we have changed procedures the way we work, communicate, shop, travel, connect and of course, the way we deliver training."
Supporting frontline personnel
Realistic hands-on training is a vital factor in preparing personnel for the challenges of live incidents, in helping them to stay connected and in enabling them to share their knowledge and experience.
There is little doubt that COVID-19 will continue to have a substantial impact on those working within the field of emergency response and that it will place unprecedented pressure on budgets, staffing and training programs.
But despite these operational challenges it will be crucial to maintain those essential non-response services that are so critical to firefighters and the wider community.
While attention may necessarily turn to the allocation of resources in the short term, it will also be important to stay mindful of the longer-term goals and priorities.
With the increased strain on departmental budgets there will almost certainly be the need to think more creatively about the support of professional development - whether it is through the pooling of training resources or equipment, the provision of educational material online or exploring new funding opportunities.
What's certain though is that a commitment to hands-on training will continue to be a crucial line of defence in maintaining safety, boosting morale and ensuring a secure knowledge base for our vital emergency services personnel.