The University of Kansas Achievement & Assessment Institute’s Center for Certification & Competency-Based Education (C3Be) has partnered with KU’s Kansas Fire & Rescue Training Institute (KFRTI) to develop a new volunteer fire officer training course through the adoption of a competency-based instructional and authentic assessment model. Set to launch in early April, the redesign will make the course more accessible to volunteer firefighters across the state of Kansas, including those in rural communities, and will improve leadership at all ranks.
KFRTI provides science-driven training and credentialing for fire and emergency services personnel. Courses are comprehensive, designed for entry-level firefighters through executive chief fire officers. A unit of Jayhawk Global, KFRTI is the only entity in the state with legislative authority to award national certifications to fire and emergency service personnel.
“Our downstream goal is to protect life and property in the community. And today we do that upstream through training,” said Kelly McCoy, KFRTI director. “When fire emergency workers show up on a scene, they perform actions and skills that reflect training received upstream. The quality of instruction matters because it’s going to deploy downstream and have impact in our communities.”
This project engages C3Be in the first of a sequence of projects to improve course curricula and teaching methodology. C3Be’s expertise is in authentic assessments, competency and outcome-based education and community.
The goal is to establish instructor qualifications, create a volunteer fire officer development program, develop flexible training models to include blended and online learning models, and address training needs of rural counties.
In particular, the fire officer course redesign will be targeted for “Frontline Leadership for the Volunteer & Combination Fire Officer” candidates — a high-need area. As of 2018, 90% of the 505 fire departments in Kansas were categorized as volunteer or mostly volunteer fire departments. To support such a large volunteer force, the fire service needs accessible pathways to leadership for volunteer officers that focuses on essential and applicable skills.
“Volunteer fire officers are bankers or farmers working at the co-op. When the bells go off, they need real knowledge they can immediately use in that moment,” McCoy said. “We also wanted to make it competency-based so that when a candidate completed this course, there was some level of competence to perform the work that would be germane to a volunteer fire officer.”
Previously, those looking to become a fire officer had to travel to Lawrence for the five-day officer course. The duration and travel made the course inaccessible to many. The class was also densely packed, lecture-based and led up to a hundred-question multiple choice test.
“The new course focuses on active learning principles, so students aren’t going to just sit here and listen to me talk for two hours,” McCoy said. “There’s going to be case studies, discussion, reflections and collaboration. The intent is to use high-impact practices specific to the volunteer fire service.”
The course will now be remote and will take place over eight weeks, with classes held one evening per week. Smaller, more interactive and context-based assessments will be delivered after every unit, closer to when the information was learned. The assessments are no longer multiple choice and instead allow the students to work as a team and problem-solve together. One of the main goals is to teach skills that will help firefighters see themselves as leaders and inspire them to reach for leadership positions.
The National Volunteer Fire Council has identified lack of quality leadership as one of the key reasons for volunteer recruitment and retention challenges in the U.S. fire service. Improving training through the design of a volunteer fire officer course addresses key needs in the state of Kansas.
“Traditionally what we see in education is, ‘I am the teacher and you’re the student, and I am transferring knowledge to you. Well, that is not likely to lead to improved abilities in firefighting or improved responsiveness to the need,” said Des Floyd, senior associate researcher at C3Be and the co-leader of the project, who added that individuals need to see themselves as not just a firefighter, but also a leader.
“What we know about adult learning theory has changed over time,” Floyd said. “So, what we do is going to be grounded in the latest science or evidence of what works.”
Mark Billquist, KFRTI firefighter training program coordinator and a member of the course focus group, also recognizes the value of the new course structure.
“This is not the ‘sit down and listen to the instructor lecture’ way of the past. I have known many good volunteer firefighters and fire officers that have built mental walls between them and fire service education,” Billquist said.
“Some have had the attitude of ‘I am just a volunteer,’ which, I believe, has discredited the talents and abilities of many good volunteer fire officers. This training will help provide the education for the volunteer fire officer and provide an identity to these often overlooked public safety servants.”
Potential future projects include the development of a training course for instructors, redesign of the Firefighter 1 course and eventually a comprehensive redesign and mapping of the full KFRTI training curriculum.
“There is alignment with Jayhawks Rising strategic plan in that KFRTI cares about the health and safety of communities in Kansas, and our impact on that is through the upstream training and learning environment for fire and emergency services personnel,” McCoy said.
“We’re working in an environment right now that is really focused on best practices and improving our entire institute.”