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Get a Life! (outside of work)

Beer? Check.

Meat? Check.

Super Secret Squirrel BBQ rub? Check.

Smoker? Check.

Pager and/or radio? That’s a negative, Ghostrider.

I am about to hit the road for two days of meat-smoking bliss, free of any thoughts or concerns about the anything and everything spinning around in the universe of fire/EMS. Structure fire on Main Street? Totally sucks, bro. Overdoses? Probably happening right now. Meh. No, sirs (and assorted Ma’ams), it is my fullest intention to have my ass planted firmly in a well-worn lawn chair, Miller Lite in hand, without a care in the world aside from keeping my cook temp around 225F.

This is what we all need, in my humble opinion. Something, anything, to escape the surprisingly intrusive lifestyle that is emergency public service.

Finding a good hobby can go a long way in the efforts of mental stability because whether you ride the busiest ladder in your state or run on the smallest of volunteer departments, we all share a common enemy; Stress. I’m not strictly talking about the ugly calls or high-intensity situations. Which is more agitating; a tricky, albeit successful, fire response that doesn’t go your way, or receiving multiple phone calls on your night off about trivial (and, odds are, self-correcting) issues? Running eighteen medic calls in twenty-four hours, or having to find a creative way to keep volunteer, part-time and full-time staff content while ordering new equipment?

Stress and anxiety do not discriminate by call volume, and every region is both unique similar in their stressors. “If my mind could forget what my eyes have seen” is a powerful statement, undoubtedly, but it can also apply to the state the toilets were left in last day. For me, personally, the social aspect of the fire service has always been more stressful than the actual nature of the job. Firehouses are more like beauty salons and barber shops than the public cares to know about.

This is a particularly inescapable reality for those in officer or leadership positions. Just because you aren’t physically present in the dayroom doesn’t mean you aren’t stuck at the station on some level. You may be at home, comfortably curled up on the couch with your family, but your mind is still at the office because it’s always at the office. Your brain is, in fact, directing your eyes to orient themselves in the general direction of the tv. Your consciousness, on the other hand, is going haywire with a flight of scenarios- How are we going to afford new gear? I could totally see that guy’s brain… The engine is OOS again, and our budget is already running thin… We are so unprepared for a fire at that one place… 

Much to the swelling agitation of your spouse or significant other, the only thing you ever have to talk about is work stuff. Thought-provoking conversations over a long-overdue family supper? Let’s talk about the kids or the house, maybe our savings plan? Nope. “You’ll never guess what happened on A-Shift, honey” is where things will start off, in all likelihood. Per industry standards, this is also the topic that will cap the meal after dessert. I need to point out that it’s not all your fault; All of your friends are work friends, and all of their friends are work friends. When the department furnishes your financial livelihood and social circle, what else do you actually have to talk about?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There is no escape.

Unless you create one.

Sharing time! I am a world-class worrier. It may not be obvious on the outside, but those closest to me know that I can fret with the best of them, blessed with the ability to obsess over any minuscule concern like a true champion. The best I can do is to try and remind myself to be like the duck (calm on the surface, paddle like hell underneath), and it works for me. My therapy? I deal with my stress through exercise and cooking, though one would think them to be natural enemies.

Find what works for you; maybe you hate jogging, and culinary puzzles just piss you off, but you’ve secretly

always had a thing for model trains. Want to play guitar? eBay is chock full of pretty decent orphaned acoustics that college kids got bored with. Want to tinker with an old car? Ok, this one can get kinda expensive. The best way to approach this diversion is to remember that it’s not about reaching the finish line, it’s about zoning out to the sounds of your cheap garage radio on a classic rock station and the click-click-click of a well-worn 3/8 drive ratchet. Trust me, when replacing 50-year-old drum brakes, there is no room for outside distractions. Only swear words of escalating creativity and pure, unbridled rage are permitted to exist within the moment.

If the time lost to a hobby is unrealistic with your work schedule, you’re probably working too much. We can all relate. It’s just not a viable option to allow your children to endure unnecessary financial hardship so you can go play. Let’s look at it from another angle, get creative if you will; it could be beneficial to replace one of your (likely) multiple part-time department jobs with one that is completely unrelated to public service. It may not be a hobby, per se, but one less day a week in a blue uniform could do wonders for your lifespan. Like most of us, I don’t really have many other marketable skills, but I’m pretty good at sitting on a zero-turn lawnmower with my earbuds in. They hire people to do that, I’ve seen em’.

Bringing it home

I’ve heard it said that once you are a parent, your sole purpose is now to be a good memory for your children. To be a good memory, you have to first be present. By present, I mean at home, at the table, helping with homework, “having a catch.” The little things. Second, you have to be good. In short, be good roughly translates to don’t be a dick. Take care of yourselves, and leave work stressors where they belong; at work, away from your family. Whatever pastimes you can acquire to aid in this endeavor will be worth it. I hear golf is pretty nifty.

As some travel company once said, “find your island.” Or hobby. Whatever.

Anderson, out.

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Revolutionize your Volunteer Fire Training

The effectiveness of any first response organization hinges on the efficiency of its training. Without training, we fail to properly and safely execute our mission of protecting life, property, and the environment. Clearly, training is a necessity. For career firefighters, training is a part of daily duty. For volunteers, training is typically accomplished one evening per week and a weekend day or something similar to that arrangement. Volunteer fire chiefs are never really able to anticipate who will show up for training and aren’t really presented with many options in the way of continuity or 100% compliance.

Let’s face some hard truths for volunteer firefighter training; at times, training needs to be mandatory and this can cause hardships for some volunteers who work during the scheduled training hours. In the Volunteer Solution Part 1 our volunteer survey revealed how the cumbersome training requirements were a barrier that prevented people from volunteering. We can all agree that training is not only necessary but it’s paramount to the function and safety of any emergency response organization. If we understand the problem than we’re able to brainstorm thoughtful solutions to redesign the way our firefighters accomplish their training and ultimately create a better educated, uniformly trained, and competent fire department.

How do you consistently train your volunteer firefighters so they’re all educated with the same information, the same way, with little gaps?  It’s time to move your non-practical, non-manipulative training to an online learning management system. 

Imagine if your fire department had its own custom online university. Anytown Fire Department University. Sounds a bit crazy, a little expensive, and a tad unrealistic; But it’s NOT let me show you how.

Almost every fire department has mandatory classes that need to be accomplished for either legal(OSHA) or insurance reasons. It’s not always easy to physically get the entire department in for these classes even when they’re labeled as mandatory. Moving the learning process to an online format allows the member to accomplish the classroom portion of the training at their own pace whether at home or out-and-about on their smart devices.  Moving all of your powerpoint training onto an interaction multi-media training course is and will be the logical future of the volunteer fire service. Custom online courses allow your members the freedom of accomplishing their training on their own time from home. This sentiment alone is worth its weight in gold. It’s a win-win. As a Fire Chief, you’re able to educate your membership with the same information across the department without requiring the physical presence of the member. This means everyone is receiving the same information in the same format.

Of course, this does not and will never replace manipulative practical training. However, what it does do is free up more time for the hands-on training necessary to keep everyone’s skills on par.

HOW DO WE DO THIS?

There are several ways. Some solutions become a line item on your budget, others are free and exercise a little creativity.

First, you’ll need a subscription to a learning management system. If you are familiar with online learning then you’ve heard of Blackboard or other web services like it. A learning management system(LMS) is a web platform that allows you to create user login accounts, gives you the ability to upload your multimedia courses and administer testing so you can be certain that your members are retaining the critical information you need them to know.

The LMS allows your members to log into their own learning environment and accomplish courses that have been assigned to them. The LMS is a customizable interface so your department logo and or your own department image and/or custom URL make the experience unique to your department and feels organic for your membership.

There are several learning management systems (LMS) companies that exist online including Litmos and Talent LMS.  Many more cloud-based LMS are available for you to choose from. As I write this article, Talent LMS appears to be the easiest to use and the most cost-effective for volunteer departments. You can watch the overview of Litmos here and the overview for Talent LMS here. Pricing for Li

tmos LMS runs $3 per user for organizations under 500 people. HOWEVER, if you are a 501(c)3 non-profit y

ou can call Litmos for special pricing. Pricing for Talent LMS appears to be more cost effective at about $100 per month up to 100 users.

Ok, so you’ve got your LMS, now it’s time to build your courses. For that, you’ll need a 3rd party multimedia creation tool. For this, I recommend Articulate 360 Rise. This is a web-based storyline multimedia course development tool. It will allow you to create custom courses with your own content, images, videos, linked content, and much more. Articulate 360 Rise also provides you with the ability to create quizzes in order to measure the knowledge retention of your training. Watch the overview of Articulate 360 here.  The Price for this will run about $600 per year.

The effectiveness and the vast potential of your course content largely resides in your own creative potential. Your courses and the knowledge it provides are solely based on your own ability to develop training. If you currently utilize Powerpoint or Keynote for your classroom training, it will be easy to transfer that content and training information into Articulate 360’s Rise development tool. There are many useful guides that can help you develop your online multimedia course.

Some techie stuff really quick: The Articulate 360 courses are developed using SCORM which is a language compatible with Litmos and Talent LMS. In summation, The LMS is the platform or the environment all of your members will log into so they can complete the courses you assigned them. Articulate 360 Rise is a web-based course creation tool. Once courses are developed with Articulate 360 you are able to load those courses into your LMS. Once loaded they can be assigned to members for completion.

Off the cuff, you can use your LMS to administer indoctrination training for new members, truck/engine specific training, policy update training, driver training, pump training, annual bloodborne pathogens training, local strategy and tactics information, and any other training you can think of. The idea here is to remove the burden of requiring the member’s presence in the station by allowing that person to complete the training on their own time and even on their mobile devices.

This is a system that is already widely used in the corporate environment. With a little ambition and creativity, online training is a thoughtful reality and the next step for volunteer fire departments to help keep their members informed and active! At a cost of less than $2000 annually, building an online university for your department is definitely within reach.

Disclaimer: I do not endorse nor am I affiliated with the companies listed in this article. The information presented is based on my own research and experience with LMS and Articulate 360 Rise. There was no transaction with any of the companies highlighted in this article. Nor are they even likely aware that I’ve inadvertently plugged their services. Either way, we like to stay on the up-and-up. Good luck!