Plan Z: Virtual training with an academy class
How Baltimore County’s first-of-its-kind Virtual Recruit Program adapted to the pandemic
Baltimore County Fire Department Training Director Tim Rostkowski co-authored this article.
When the 26 members of the Baltimore County Fire Department’s 115th Recruit Class took their seats for the first time on March 2, 2020, they were given the same lessons as countless classes before them.
“You must pay close attention to detail, for every detail can matter in this profession,” the instructors informed them. “Also, be prepared for schedule changes with little notice; this is the fire service. We must always adapt, improvise and overcome.”
Little did the instructors know, at that time, how true this last bit of advice would prove to be.
Three days later, on March 5, the governor of Maryland declared a State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the weeks that would follow, states around the nation began to impose far-reaching restrictions on gatherings and business hours of operation.
Fire department impact and adjustments
All career recruit academies throughout the region began rapidly working on contingency plans for their programs. Some even paused their training classes to work through the logistics of shifting gears during the pandemic.
The staff of the department’s Fire-Rescue Academy (FRA) was busy making contingency plans of their own. In addition to incorporating two daily wellness checks and health screenings, conducting frequent disinfection of surfaces and equipment, and wearing face coverings during class, the staff also looked for ways to become innovative in delivering their education.
The schedule changed over a dozen times in the course of a few short weeks as staff looked for ways to provide meaningful education to students in the most effective manner possible. The schedule was ultimately reformatted to allow for recruits to be deployable to field operations in as little as eight weeks, should the strength of the department’s workforce begin to suffer the effects of the virus.
Fortunately, that scenario did not play out here. However, instructors were faced with keeping tabs on multiple absences of students as they reported feeling ill and were advised to stay home under an abundance of caution and an era of constantly changing guidance. As time progressed, it became apparent that the logistics of continuing such a program in-person were going to prove challenging.
A new approach to training
The staff quickly adapted and moved to “Plan Z,” setting the groundwork for a first-of-its-kind Virtual Recruit Program.
As the term “social distancing” was gaining notoriety, the Recruit Class began its own form of the concept. The class was divided into three smaller groups and spread out among three classrooms. Each classroom utilized the county’s online conferencing software to virtually access the instructor for the lesson.
Each room assigned one of the recruits as a moderator and used the chat function to interact with the instructor while they taught from one of the classrooms. In the event that a recruit needed to isolate at home, they could simply log into their web conferencing account and access the lecture in real-time. This solution limited the amount of missed time that both the recruit and staff would have to make up later.
Building the Hybrid Recruit Academy
As the pandemic progressed, it was apparent that there was a need to limit contact among all personnel as much as possible – recruits included.
Over the course of three days, and with no interruption to the recruit program, the instructional staff built the framework for a never-before-tried “Hybrid Recruit Academy.” The staff worked to rearrange the instructional components of the 108-hour basic firefighting curriculum in such a way that the students could participate virtually in lectures. With a schedule based on four 10-hour days per week, this roughly equated to about two days of the week online from home and the remaining two days in-person.
On a typical “Virtual Day,” recruits were expected to be logged in to their video conferencing software by the start time for the day with their cameras turned on. While the primary recruit instructor taught the lecture from one of the classrooms, support instructors would be logged in to the virtual classroom to monitor the recruit’s participation. They would frequently pose questions to recruits in the group chat to encourage the recruits to think critically about what the instructor was teaching.
Much of the lecture adapted well to this format; however, some of it did not, as the instructors found it hard to guide the students through the tying of basic fire service knots through a computer screen. However, they were able to reinforce lessons using the department’s internally built learning management system.
The last hour of the day was reserved for physical fitness training. In a prime example of thinking outside the box, one of the department’s captains (and peer fitness trainer) led a daily virtual workout. Recruits would participate in PT alongside him using the conferencing software on their phone. The exercises were designed to be accomplished just about anywhere with no required equipment.
On days where the recruits did not have lecture, they reported to the academy compound for a full day of practical exercises and skills reinforcement. This resulted in a net gain in actual hands-on time, as students were committed to practical skills the entire day, as opposed to having to share the instructional time with lecture. This equated to opportunities for more repetitions for each recruit to assist in building crucial muscle memory of skills.
In the end, the outcome from adapting the program in this format yielded the same results in final testing as the traditional format of the program. The net result was the addition of four days to the program. In comparison to having to suspend the entire recruit academy for a few weeks, however, this was a small cost. As a result of the success experienced, the instructional staff made the decision to continue the program for the 60-hour advanced firefighter program in the same format.
Hope for the future
The unprecedented nature of 2020 challenged many fire service organizations to set aside traditions and past practices out of sheer necessity. In many cases, we have found that some outside-the-box thinking and resourcefulness has yielded processes and results never once imagined. The successes that have resulted give us hope for the future of our profession and the many talents that lie within our organizations.
Editor’s note: Did your department use a virtual reality model for its academy during the pandemic? Share your story with firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the co-author
Tim Rostkowski is a 15-year veteran of the Baltimore County Fire Department. Currently serving as the Training Director, Rostkowski is responsible for the training and education for over 1,000 career and 2,000 volunteer personnel. He serves as the chairperson for the Maryland Council of Fire and Rescue Academies and is the agency liaison to the Maryland Fire Services Personnel Qualifications Board (MFSPQB). In 2015, Rostkowski was credited with the design, construction and implementation of the first ever Learning Management System for the Baltimore County Fire Department – Integrated Fire/EMS/Rescue Network Online (InFERNO). Beyond his duties as the training chief, Rostkowski serves as a PIO representing the fire department and emergency management. Rostkowski is a nationally registered paramedic and holds a bachelor's degree in EMS administration from Columbia Southern University.