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Experience is the Best Teacher:
The NIMS City Tabletop ICS Training System™
Understanding how Public Safety Workers Learn
“Experience is the best teacher” is the best axiom to apply to the education of public safety worker/first responders. This is why training tools should be effective in duplicating critic incident scenarios. These tools must stimulate and enhance desire and enthusiasm while simulating actual field experience. For this reason, the best tool must duplicate actual field experience by allowing the student to interact with it as he or she would at a critical incident scene.
In order to understand what tools a public safety worker will need, it is necessary to understand how these first responders learn and assimilate information.
- Public safety workers are dynamic assimilators: They learn best when allowed to actively participate, practice and repeat codified sequences of behavior, as opposed to strict book-learning. They are hands-on learners.
- Public safety workers are communication oriented learners: 1) Public safety work requires instant knowledge transmission and reception. 2) The culture of public safety is that of a large family.
- Public safety workers are “prioritizers”: They focus their attention upon self-survival, search rescue and safety of incident victims, and then the protection of properties.
- Public safety workers are follower/leaders: they respond to authority and expertise of their superiors and those who have lived the skills they wish to learn. Through this they gain confidence and leadership skills.
- Public safety workers learn from peers better than unknown teachers. This is because they view their co-workers as equals. They are “brothers and sisters”, not fellow employees or volunteers. Therefore, to be most effective, the instructors must also be public safety workers who have been “in the trenches”.
- Public safety workers are mindful of learning conscientiously: They view their education as important to themselves and the survival of the communities they serve.
- Public safety workers prefer actual scenarios to abstract training: As hands-on learners, they don’t respond well to theory or hypothetical example. As dynamic learners, they respond best to actual critical incident scenarios. Public safety workers thrive on real life situations. They live for the “adrenaline rush” of being on a scene and responding to a crisis. So, the training must somehow re-create incident scenes to be effective. 
Photo courtesy of www.bucks.edu
“A young firefighter once said ‘If training is not fun or interesting, people do not learn as much or remember it as well.’ … People learn better by doing rather than just being told how to do it.”  This is sage advice in the public safety training. So, it is best to train your public safety students in a modality that:
- encourages the group dynamic,
- allows the worker to actively work within the training modality,
- encourages teacher student interaction,
- builds confidence and thus leadership, and
- places the student at a critical incident scene so he get the feeling he is there.
Of course, it is unethical to place a public safety worker in a situation that could be harmful to him or others, due to their lack of knowledge. So, the training tools that closely recreate a critical incident must be three dimensional, interactive and engages the senses of the public safety worker. This kind of tool will help imprint permanent learning and optimal performance in the public safety worker’s brain.
Photo courtesy of www.hermosabch.org
Engaging the Senses of the Public Safety Worker
Public Safety Workers tend to use visual and kinesthetic styles of learning and practice the most. One can observe this in many aspects of public safety training and operations. For instance, emergency medical services classes have both classroom and practical components. Then the auditory is engaged by interacting with the instructor and their peers.
Effective learning involves engaging multiple intelligences. According to the multiple intelligence theory, humans are born with seven intelligences: verbal, logical, musical/rhythmic, visual, physical/kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. The intelligences most common in public safety workers are verbal, visual, logical, physical/kinesthetic, and intrapersonal. These intelligences are necessary for and further developed by the nature of public safety work: 
- verbal intelligence for effective communications
- visual intelligence for assessing situations
- physical/kinesthetic for assessing situations and also for acting quickly, such as rendering treatment for patients or rescuing trapped victims
- logical intelligence for quick and effective problem solving
- intrapersonal for effective teamwork
Therefore, effective experiential training tools for public safety workers must engage these areas of intelligence. The tool must effectively engage the three main learning styles:
- Taking in information via sense of sight, such as reading and observing, helps students learn concepts about incident scenes, assessment of critical incident scene-scapes, the human body, how to assess and treat patients, etc. These skills are then established by instruction demonstration utilizing physical training tools. Therefore the educational tool should have the look of actual incident scenes.
- Auditory learning is also involved during these skill practices such as students listen for breath, lung sounds, etc. taking in information via hearing, such as listening to what is taught by their instructor. The interpersonal communication between peers and instructors helps the student understand the logic behind command structures.
- Kinesthetic & Tactile:
- Assimilating information practice by physically handling objects, engages the students skill and intellect. By using the same tools they observed instructor has,, the students familiarize themselves with the actions and decision making involved in their craft. Thus the educational tool encourages repetitive use.
Therefore the educational tool should create the “feel” of an actual incident scene. This means that it has the best possibility of recreating the emotional and crisis reaction within the student. It should allow the instructor to show possibilities, correct mistakes and to show the student the “what, when, where and why” certain actions and decisions are made in critical incident scenarios.
Students then apply the skills they’ve learned and practiced in class and “practicals” in the field. They use their senses of sight, hearing, and touch to assess critical situations and act with immediacy and calm. Their experience in the field reinforces this process each time they encountering a scene, whether it be assessing a structural fire or treating a patient. This is why it is important that experiential learning be provided for public safety workers to perform at optimum levels and successfully handle emergency incidents.
Engaging the Mind of the Public Safety Worker
To have an effective organization of first responders, it is necessary to educate their minds. This means, training the student to react, follow orders, work in harmony with his colleagues, make split second decisions and to learn leadership skills. These aspects of public safety workers education require training in identifying clear objectives, intuitive understanding, and interactive learning.
- Objectives Training:
- When working on incidents, public safety worker protocols target clear objectives such as rescuing victims from a fire, ensuring an open airway for patients to breathe, or extricating a patient as quickly as possible from a vehicle involved in an accident. Thus, it is essential that the classroom and hands-on learning experiences include this objective/goal oriented element.
- Tapping Instinctual Skills:
- Intuitive skills are commonly used by public safety workers to get a sense of the environment as to volatility and safety, and public safety workers commonly describe this as their “gut feeling” or instinct. It takes time to develop on-the-job intuition, as the workers run more calls and work more incidents. Over time, they learn to “get a feel” for the work. Therefore, the more experiential learning they can have before they begin running incidents, the better they will be able to apply these skills.
- Habituating Organizational Interaction:
- Interaction and team playing is an important element of learning during training. Public safety workers must interact with each other frequently when working incidents both in person and over the radio. On large incidents, interaction occurs not only between crew members but between crew members, crew officers, other crews on scene, the incident command officer, and the municipality dispatch/communications center. Thus, effective experiential training tools must include practicing interaction. This interaction encourages teamwork and develops leadership. ￼
- Model 1/87 scale vehicles for Highway traffic simulation: 18 vehicles included: Fire Engines, Ladder Truck, Ambulances, Police Car, Tactical unit, & cars.
- Visual aids include: 100 separate 3D pictures of vehicle for large incident management. 3D pictures of buildings and homes. Highway incident lane closure overlays (MUTCD) traffic barrels and cones. ICS command boards, ICS 201 & 203 forms, Mass Casualty victim cards for triage and law enforcement interaction, and ICS Organizational Chart and Initial Company Officer Work Charts.
Photo courtesy of www.ephrata.org/258.html
Teamwork & Leadership
One of the most important cultural values of public safety workers is teamwork. Every public safety worker on a crew plays a vital role in getting the job done safely and successfully. Not only do they hold in their hands the lives of the people they serve, but also the lives of fellow crew members. So, any modality used in training these individuals must foster this value by providing the tools to build cohesion and high performance teamwork.
Though it is important to train individuals so they gain the self-esteem and confidence to “act on their feet” in the field, such action is all for naught if they do not perform in concert within the organization they are working. Effective leadership is not gained unless a well trained individual can also follow a chain of command. As a result, all persons in the organization must be educated to act as a team. Therefore, training must be based not only on developing individual knowledge and actions, but group protocols and hierarchies as well.￼
How does the NIMS City ICS Tabletop Training System create a direct experience of field operations for public safety workers?
The basis of the NIMS City ICS training system is to duplicate in miniature an actual critical incident event scene. It is flexible enough to create a virtual urban or suburban environment with literally thousands of possibilities of scenarios. However, the “virtual” portion of this is specifically hands on; there are no costly electronics or mechanics. The toolbox also includes transparent highway incident flash cards with classic highway incidents, so the student can memorize critical incident scene models that are most often encountered by public safety workers. ICS functions the same way table-top board games do, using objects representing the scene:
The visual aspect of NIMS City is that it looks like a scene, creating a top down visual of an event scene. The safety worker can move all around the scene to see if a certain scene management plan is functional, and then can site any peculiarities and difficulties with immediacy and with functional ease.
The tactile and manipulative aspect of NIMS City begins with its flat board replicating almost any event scenario. It is then enhanced with three dimensional toy sized vehicles, buildings, geographic features, human and animal figures, and more. The student can manipulate these on the board easily. Once the student has evaluated the scene, the student can then manipulate the objects on the incident scenario.
At any time during the exercise, the instructor can interact with the students and the scenario, instruct or query the students. Thus the auditory aspect of incident training is engaged.
The NIMS City ICS Toolbox System is preferable to electronic media and Blackboard/ Whiteboard training for public safety workers.
The NIMS City ICS Toolbox Training system creates a manipulative scenario where the pubic safety worker can make mistakes. Rather than making crucial, dangerous and possibly life threatening mistakes in real incidents, corrections are assimilated by the responder within the safety of the classroom.
Decision making in critical incident scenes can be stressful. With NIMS City, the student can experience some of that stress, without the fear that his mistakes could do harm to others. His instructor can take him back and walk him through his successes and failures, instructing him as they go, at their own pace. Then the student can apply what he has learned in actual incidents. But, unlike on-scene training, the student can then continue her/his learning experience by practicing incident response with the Toolbox on his own or with the instructor.
The blackboard is great for quickly jotting down information and note taking, but a public safety worker cannot be browsing his notes while reacting to a fire. A computer is great for viewing simulations of incident scenarios. But, you cannot obtain the kinesthetic learning aspect engaged through use of computers or writing down rules that are already available in texts.
It is necessary to place the student public safety worker in scenarios that closely replicate actual critical incidents. This is why the sensory aspect of the ICS Toolbox Training System makes it superior to media based, theoretical and initial on-scene training.
Because of its interactive capabilities, all three senses are engaged in working within the ICS environment. The NIMS City board is much larger and much more sophisticated in its possibilities, and is much more cost effective than hi-tech training tools.
ICS Toolbox’s NIMS City ICS Tabletop Training System is the only off-scene system available to Public Safety Organizations to fully train their staff, replicating Incident Field Training.
Public safety organizations have an increasing need to further their knowledge and create leaders from within. This is why the NIMS City system is invaluable in training and refining accurate decision making and developing leadership skills for public safety workers. The NIMS City ICS Training system is “must have” tool for all EMS, Fire and Rescue departments. Hands-on experience cannot be achieved by any software or electronic device available.
“Experience is the best teacher.” NIMS City is the best public safety training tool available to help pubic safety workers gain that experience.
Copyright © 2007 Katherine V. Vaughn and ICS Toolbox, LLC
1. Adapted from: Duke Energy. First Responders Beware training guide. Culvero.com, LLC © 2006.
2. Mike Chiaramonte, “Instructor Training 101,” Fire Chief Magazine, © 2005
3. Adapted from: Jeffrey Pindelski, “Learning Curve,” Fire Chief Magazine, © 2006.