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Discussion boards: Fostering learning, engagement and preparedness for firefighters

This structured environment for presenting real-world scenarios fosters a space for critical thinking and healthy debate

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Vector color chalk drawn illustration set of computer devices with bubble talks on black chalkboard background.

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In the high-stakes world of firefighting, where every second counts, continuous learning and preparedness are not merely desirable but absolute necessities. In our dynamic environment, where the unexpected is the norm, the value of ongoing and continuous education cannot be overstated. One tool to facilitate such education is the discussion board – a versatile online tool that can elevate firefighters’ knowledge, skills and abilities, ultimately enhancing their capability to serve and protect their communities.

Introducing discussion boards

Discussion boards, in one form or another, have been in place with the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department since 2018 and are included in the Probationary Firefighter training program and our Probationary Lieutenant Task Book. Often integrated into online learning platforms, discussion boards offer a space for asynchronous communication and collaboration. Firefighters can use them to share information, ask questions and engage in critical discussions. One of the primary advantages of discussion boards in the fire service is their adaptability to the unique needs of our profession. As part of our Probationary Lieutenant Task Book, we have incorporated a monthly discussion board for our newly promoted officers.

For example, our lieutenant discussion board must ensure a consistent learning environment that uses an existing learning platform and remains sustainable within the Professional Development Section. This is our basic format and how we employ our discussion board for our newly promoted lieutenants.

  • Every month, one of our deputy chiefs will post a topic to the board. The newly promoted lieutenants are required to post one reply to the thread author and one subsequent reply to others within the board for a total of two monthly responses.
  • The thread topics can run the gamut from Administrative, Operational, Leadership, Safety, Health & Wellness, etc.
  • Every six months, a new round of deputy chiefs and probationary lieutenants begin a new six-month cycle.
  • At the end of the six-month cycle, the Professional Development Section reviews all submissions and assigns the next cycle to a new group of probationary lieutenants.

Enhancing engagement and knowledge sharing

Engagement within the fire service is not a luxury; it is a requirement. The fireground demands immediate decision-making in a time-compressed and high-stress environment. Proper execution of strategy and tactics is paramount. Discussion boards can create a virtual workspace where firefighters actively participate in knowledge sharing or, more appropriately, continuous learning.

In our case, a deputy chief might recount a particularly challenging incident and ask our lieutenants to provide tactical best practices. In turn, a virtual dialogue is created on a specific topic where the deputy chief and the cohort of lieutenants provide responses, suggestions, best practices and guidance. This creates a safe space of empowerment, thus creating an atmosphere of mutual support and learning.

Following is an actual discussion board question:

The importance of conducting a 360 of a structure for the first-arriving engine and first-arriving special service.

Monday, May 29, 2023, 6:26 AM

Number of replies: 53

The fire service continues to emphasize the importance of conducting a 360 lap of the structure before making entry. You are the Lieutenant riding as officer of the first arriving truck; explain to your crew the importance of the special service lap and what elements you are identifying. How will you manage any discrepancies in the 360 report conveyed by the Captain to the Battalion Chief after you complete your lap?

Critical thinking and decision-making

Critical thinking is the bedrock of effective firefighting, and our discussion board questions highlight the need to process information effectively. This structured environment for presenting real-world scenarios and case studies fosters a space of reading, thinking, researching and responding with critical thought. Our officers can analyze these situations, discuss potential strategies, and evaluate the pros and cons of different approaches. This type of exercise hones their analytical skills and prepares them for the complex decision-making required during emergencies.

Intentional decision-making based on critically processing incident information is a fundamental skill underpinning effective problem-solving. Within an informal discussion board, these skills are valued and essential for fostering constructive dialogue and arriving at informed conclusions. Integral to this learning environment, moderators (deputy chiefs) play a crucial role in facilitating critical thinking and decision-making by encouraging respectful discourse, promoting and exploring outside-the-box thinking, knowledge sharing and the ability to grow as a new officer/leader.

Fostering diverse perspectives

The fire service is characterized by its diversity in terms of personnel, experiences, training and backgrounds. Discussion boards provide a platform for exchanging these diverse perspectives by promoting open dialogue. Whether it’s a rural fire department facing unique challenges or a metropolitan department operating in densely populated areas, the shared insights can lead to more holistic risk assessments and the development of adaptable and agile emergency response strategies and tactics.

By implementing a wide variety of discussion topics, we are able to promote inclusive dialogue while at the same time enhancing problem-solving skills that build upon the leadership growth of our officers. By design, our questions are framed to promote the exploration of ideas, thoughts and diverse perspectives. The goal is to encourage our officers to actively read and understand the words behind the message. In other words, we want our officers to analyze, interpret, critically evaluate, and then respond with their own viewpoints and, when appropriate, with respectful debate.

Flexibility and accessibility

The non-stop, dynamic fire service environment can often limit opportunities to engage in continuous learning. Online discussion boards provide the necessary flexibility for our fire service professionals to grow and learn while working within their ever-changing schedules. This type of virtual platform provides real-time communication utilizing various devices, such as smartphones, tablets and computers. These levels of accessibility ensure that our personnel are afforded every opportunity to participate while on or off duty.

The convenience of engaging in virtual discussions and accessing archived information supports and enhances our dynamic workforce. Our officers can engage with training materials, seek advice or respond to critical topics at their convenience. The flexible format for posting two responses within 30 days ensures adequate time to research operational and administrative resources, whether during a quiet night shift or a brief break between emergency calls.

Moving forward

Discussion boards can be a beacon of continuous improvement in a profession where knowledge, skills, abilities and readiness are directly linked to professional development and public service. By fostering engagement, critical thinking, diverse perspectives, peer learning and flexibility, discussion boards empower our workforce to continually grow in their pursuit of professional excellence.

As the fire service embraces the power of online collaboration, it not only bolsters its collective knowledge but also its preparedness to face the unpredictable challenges of the future. Firefighters who engage in these virtual forums are broadening their perspectives and becoming more adaptable within today’s learning landscape. This additional learning tool can prove vital for the continuous improvement of our firefighters and the safety of our communities.

The discussion boards allow us to take ownership of our future leaders’ development and help cultivate and inspire a group of young and hungry leaders. Peer learning, coaching and mentorship are the cornerstones of a dynamic and progressive fire service. The result is a continual cycle of professional development tools that enriches the collective expertise of our firefighters and the entire fire service.

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Rocco Alvaro is a deputy chief with Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire & Rescue Department. He is currently assigned to the Training Division and serves as the section lead for Professional Development, directly responsible for the organization’s leadership and professional development training. This formal and informal training targets all department personnel, including uniformed, civilian and volunteer staff.