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Train like your life depends on it: How Ventura County firefighters put learning first

Imagine if you came into work without knowing what job you would be doing—every single day.

That’s true for the more than 450 firefighters at the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) in Ventura County, California. The team responds to nearly 45,000 calls for service each year, which extends beyond fires. It includes medical emergency calls, hazardous response, animal rescues, swift water and ocean rescue, and more. In the last five year, VCFD’s has experienced a 27% increase in its annual calls for service.

“Firefighters really don’t know what they’re going to be called to do. In our line of work, you wait and prepare. Your life depends on a diverse mix of training,” says Vaughan Miller, the now-retired Deputy Fire Chief who spent 35 years with VCFD.

Being an effective first responder comes down to completing 700 hours of extensive training before getting the job. One year later, new firefighters acquire 600 additional training hours, which is maintained each day on duty for the rest of their career.

Firefighting remains a relatively lower percentage of VCFD’s annual incidents, however, it’s where firefighters spend 56% percent of their time on scene. In California, the size and severity of wildfires is growing rapidly each year.

In this heavily regulated industry, VCFD wanted an online learning management system that could help prepare its firefighters and employees to anticipate and respond to the changing needs of its communities. Using the Cornerstone Learning Suite, VCFD eliminated the need for its previous paper-based curriculum and brought training online with the intent of bridging communication gaps, providing consistent training and enhancing accessibility. Now, firefighters can access important learning content any time of day from their mobile devices or computer no matter their location.

Training That’s More than a Job Requirement

There’s a saying in firefighting: “Train like your life depends on it, because it does.”

“Firefighters definitely train more than most professions,” says Marisol Rodriguez, a Fire Captain at VCFD. “It's very important because we're responding to such an array of emergencies.

At VCFD, firefighters train four hours per day, across their 10-day, 24-hour shifts. Rodriguez says her team trains for everything from search and rescue, to deploying a firehose, to a variety of vehicle extrication scenarios.

Before implementing Cornerstone, Rodriguez and other leaders at VCFD tracked the training progress of their direct reports manually. It was a slower process, Rodriguez says, and difficult to see the status of a firefighter’s training records and compliance requirements.

Cornerstone’s Learning Suite offered an opportunity to change that, with the ability to track and manage not only records of the training, but also learning content. However, initial adoption of the platform by firefighters and their supervisors remained low.

For this reason, VCFD hired a dedicated Cornerstone Project Manager, Quane Huff, and employed a blended team of firefighters, organizational leaders, and communication experts to develop a user-friendly learning environment and drive Cornerstone’s adoption.

A learning platform designed for firefighters

Quane Huff has a degree in organizational leadership, and he’s spent his career implementing and supporting development programs at different companies. His first experiences with organizational learning, however, came while he was an electronics technician in the Navy.

The key, he adds, is to keep things simple. And his first order of business when he started at VCFD? To simplify Cornerstone for the firefighters, starting by organizing VCFD’s information on the platform. He also developed a new Learner Home page to feature the most important things the firefighters could do with Cornerstone (like upload their training), making it easier for firefighters to understand the platform’s uses. The result of these two initial changes came quickly, with the number of users on the platform tripling during Huff’s first year at VCFD.

Today, Cornerstone’s Learner Home is critical to VCFD’s training program. It includes instructor-led training, on-the-job training, eLearning, simulations and crowd-sourced training, among other modalities.

All new firefighters are given an iPad pre-installed with Cornerstone, and microlearning courses are available to accommodate learning between emergency calls. Courses are also available on mobile devices, so firefighters can learn in the field—whether it’s a refresher on hazardous materials or readiness training for fire season. It helps the VCFD team stay ready for every call.

“If you don't use [your training], you lose it,” says Rodriguez.

Huff now leads a Cornerstone working group of 15 civilians and firefighters dedicated to improving the platform for VCFD—whether it’s a software fix or the implementation of new Cornerstone functionality.

“We have that process in place now where user groups reach out to us and say, ‘we need Cornerstone to do X,’” says Huff. “My team prototypes and designs in our testing environments. We get all of these groups to agree to the new changes, and then we launch new change.”

Keeping Compliance Up-to-Date

While the importance of learning and training for firefighters is centered on the ability to make life-saving decisions, VCFD also has compliance standards to complete annually—including certifications for OSHA, EMT and Paramedic Programs, and the California State Fire Marshal. Cornerstone’s Learning Suite has been instrumental to track and manage completion.

Before Cornerstone, says fire captain Trevor Johnson, tracking compliance in real-time was challenging, especially using a paper-based system. Firefighters respond to calls all day and night. This constant on-the-go environment makes it hard to complete compliance and log training before the end of your 24-hour shift.

“Cornerstone offers a way for me to check-in on people’s compliance status and provides the tools I need to help the team be successful,” says Johnson. “If a firefighter is overdue on their learning activities, the system automatically sends a reminder with the specific areas they need to complete. The result? Higher compliance rates finished on-time across VCFD.

Helping VCFD’s firefighters meet their potential

The success of Cornerstone’s Learning Suite for training and compliance has spurred VCFD to use the platform to meet other needs, too. They have recently implemented performance reviews and career tracking through Cornerstone’s Performance Suite—a program that’s not only new to VCFD, but relatively unique to fire departments nationwide.

“I want to know each person I work with, what they're interested in, and where they want to grow,” says Johnson. “Maybe they're an engineer looking to promote to a fire captain or a new firefighter interested in becoming a battalion chief one day. Cornerstone offers a variety of advancement classes, training materials and certification tests to support firefighters throughout their career.”

This is a major benefit not only for the individual firefighters’ career mobility, but also for the health of VCFD as a whole. Like many public service organizations, VCFD is seeing an increase in retirees. With Cornerstone, firefighters can proactively ready themselves to step into more senior roles, and existing leadership can assess who fits those roles.

Altogether, Cornerstone’s tools are powering the potential of VCFD and its firefighters to continue to meet the needs of the community it serves.

“A person might call 9-1-1 one time in their life,” says Johnson. “When I show up on that call, it might be their first and only interaction with the fire department. And often times, we help them on their worst day. That’s why I strive to provide the best care and compassion for the person in need.”

It’s safe to bet that Cornerstone has inspired a firefighter-driven organization to embrace online training solutions, go beyond compliance and create a culture of continuous learning and development. VCFD trains hard because your life – and theirs– depends on it.

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