What the Pros Say About Training the Trainer

July 7, 2004
Seasoned trainers share secrets about what makes train-the-trainer programs work...and fail

Realistic training conditions bring together learning and doing. Here, FEMA and Los Angeles teams practice rescue techniques.

The National Emergency Training Center offers responders an opportunity to learn new skills that they can re-teach when they return home.
Practical skills are the essence of training. Here (left), hazmat trainees learn to patch leaks.
The same task in a hot suit is a more difficult task, especially on the Leak Monster, where every patch produces another leak.

One of my biggest concerns about training trainers is that a lot of people get out there and have no idea what they're doing,” says Bob Nixon.

Nixon knows this because he was once one of them.

Nixon now directs the emergency care training for Jones & Bartlett, Publishers of Sudbury, Mass. But in 1973 he had been riding a private ambulance for two years and had just received his emergency medical technician (EMT) certification from Broward Community College in Florida.

“At the end of the course, the head of the department asked me if I wanted to teach. He said, ‘I'll get you a curriculum and a textbook.' When I showed up the first day, all I got was the grade book. I was on my own.”

Playing Catch-Up
A lot has changed since 1973. Emergency services training has become far more professional and rigorous. Traditional academies for new recruits have expanded their offerings, supplemented by college courses, specialized seminars, and training sessions. Ongoing learning is clearly part of first responder culture.

On 9/11, though, this educational system received a vast shock. Suddenly, emergency responders needed to know more. Much more. Police had to familiarize themselves with hazmat suits and chemical detectors. Fire crews had to learn to preserve evidence while battling weapons of mass destruction (WMD). EMTs needed to prepare for bioterrorism and decontamination. And everyone had to get on the same page about incident management.

For most responders, this constituted a new set of tools and techniques. To get the word out to those who might need it, emergency services turned to train-thetrainer education.

Actually, it was a model they had borrowed years ago from the military. Organizations generally pick experienced members who have already mastered their subject. They send them to classes where they learn the fundamentals of training adults. When they return, they are ready to teach their skills to fellow responders.

Or are they? How do we know if the trainers that return from these courses are ready? What should supervisors look for if they are not trainers themselves? Is there any way to ensure responders are better equipped than Nixon and his single grade book in 1973?

“If someone asks me what factors determine the effectiveness of instructors in the field, the quality of train-the-trainer courses is way down on the list,” says Stephen Sharro, superintendent of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md. What counts, he says, is picking individuals with the personality traits to become good teachers.

First on his list and virtually everyone else's is communication skills. “Some people are simply natural communicators, the way some are natural leaders,” says Sharro. Yet even natural communicators need to hone their skills to teach in front of a classroom of people with varying learning styles and attention spans.

“We call it charm school,” says Sharro. He teaches trainers to teach in ways that involve the entire class. They should ask questions and teach subjects several different ways words, pictures, demonstrations to make sure the lesson is clear to everyone.

“We have a saying,” says Sharro. “‘If I say it, you may not hear it. If I teach it, you may not remember it. If I involve you, the skill is yours for life.' This is the basis of the performance-based training we've been delivering.”

Good communicators also use feedback in constructive ways, says Glenn F. Kaminsky, a well-respected trainer from Longmont, Colo. “We use a lot of positive reinforcement when somebody does something well, and a lot of specific feedback when they do not. We don't chew them out when they get it wrong, we show them where they went wrong, then re-teach it.

“Good teachers are creative. If a trainee is not responding, they look at themselves first and try to come up with another way to teach the lesson. If they've described how to approach a suspect, they may then act it out so the student gets it.”

Nixon agrees. “Coaching and cheerleading are one and the same,” he chuckles. “I buy into the sandwich theory of teaching sandwich one bad between two goods. Show them, make sure they do it well, and then praise them even for baby steps.”

Street Smarts
Commitment also counts, says Sam Barber, a training consultant who works with the Pointman Leadership Institute in Fresno, Calif. “You have to have the attitude that you're going to pull everybody through with you,” he says. “You need a commitment that goes beyond the few hours you spend in the classroom, because teaching is more than regurgitating information from a curriculum. It reaches across to help students really learn.”

While it is a given that trainers should know their subject, they must have street smarts, too. “Adult learners are suspicious, especially when they are experts in their own right as are emergency responders,” says Sharro. “Trainers with direct experience have more credibility. Not only is that important in building trust, but they can draw on it to illustrate their lessons.”

While that makes sense, few responders have ever had to deal with a WMD emergency. What experience can they draw upon?

“For the most part, scenarios for dealing with WMD are not unlike the hazmat scenarios we've been dealing with all along,” says Mike Wieder, assistant director of Fire Protection Publications at Oklahoma State University.

“People ask if we're prepared for anthrax or ricin. We've been prepared for a long time. We use the same equipment and procedures, whether the white powder came out of letter or a drum that fell off a truck. The only real difference is law enforcement. If it fell off a drum, it's a cleanup site. If it fell off your desk, it's a crime scene. Dealing with bioterrorism is similar to industrial hygiene. We have all the information we need to do it.”

Eating an Elephant
Even responders with all the characteristics of natural teachers can learn a lot in train-thetrainer courses. One of the first lessons inevitably covers how adults learn. This sounds pretty straightforward. After all, every responder has had years of schooling. Yet adults do not learn like children, says Peggy Schaefer, a training manager at the North Carolina Justice Academy.

“You can teach kids something like geometry or algebra that they may never need,” she explains. “Adults have a need-to-know orientation. They're motivated to learn what they need to know. They're more skeptical and they have short attention spans.”

According to Ed Halcomb, a program coordinator at the Michigan State Police's Hazardous Materials Training Center, trainers need to grab the attention of their students right from the start. “Sometimes that's difficult,” he says. “Some participants say they're here because they couldn't do their regular job and the boss thought it would be light duty.”

Halcomb's strategy is to wake them up. “In hazmat, we use case studies that show how responders were exposed inadvertently because they failed to act appropriately based on current practices. We show how the failure to plan and prepare had a negative impact.”

Motivated students move into what Halcomb calls the “cognitive domain,” where they are ready to learn and apply information. This is easier said than done because adults have different learning styles. Some will absorb a lecture while others need pictures and illustrations to visualize a situation. Still others are handson learners who will never really get it unless they do it.

Good instructors learn to combine these methods to involve everyone in the lesson. They may use training videos, pictures, illustrations, flip charts and white boards as well as texts. PowerPoint presentations are popular because they can combine all these features into a single type of media.

When videos and PowerPoints last more than 20 minutes, though, students begin to lose focus and forget details, says Halcomb. “It's like eating an elephant,” he continues. “When the instructor in my first train-the-trainer class asked how you did that, we didn't understand what he was getting at and had all kinds of crazy answers. The right answer was, ‘One bite at a time.' It's the same thing with learning complex tasks. Good teachers break them into bite-sized pieces that students can absorb.”

Leak Monster
Information will only take responders so far. They also need to train in what Halcomb calls “psychomotor skills,” or thinking and doing a task. “It's one thing to know how to plug a hole in a leaky drum and another thing to do it,” Halcomb continues.

At his Michigan training center, students spend a day learning to plug leaks. Then they rotate through nine skill stations that test their ability to plug and patch. The finale is the Leak Monster, a leaky set of pipes and hot water tank. Every time students patch one hole, another leak appears. They can use only one technique per patch, so they have to go through their entire repertoire to stop the tank from leaking.

At this point, trainers are essentially helping students with the finer points of technique. Yet Nixon warns that trainers may over-emphasize practical techniques. “Training getting proficient in a skill is the ‘know how.' But responders also need to develop thinking skills, the ‘know why.'”

Without the “know why,” responders can do everything right and still get it wrong. Nixon points to the case of a 40-year-old woman having an asthma attack. “She had already given herself five shots of Albuterol [a medicine used to treat asthma] and was still having trouble breathing.

“The EMTs gave her another shot and then another. Why? They did what they were trained to do, which was to use Albuterol. They didn't use critical thinking skills. The patient had given herself five treatments already. They should have realized their Albuterol wasn't going to help any more than hers did. Instead, they should have started high-flow oxygen and taken her to the hospital.

“The point is, you have to train people to know how you do the job, but also why they do it that way. They have to know enough to recognize when things are not going real well,” Nixon concludes.

Serious Stuff
Students not only have different learning styles but diverse personalities. A good trainer has to reach them all. Halcomb, for example, suggests trainers direct questions at shy and sullen students, and stand next to trainees engaging in horseplay. They should avoid eye contact with students who know all the answers so they don't dominate classroom discussions, and use the roster to make sure everybody answers at least two questions.

Does this sound like high school? “Sometimes it's not that disciplined,” Halcomb laughs. “You don't have problems with spit wads or passing notes, but they'll talk openly and have side conversations.”

Barber is not as subtle. “Trainers need to maintain a fair but firm grasp on the class,” he says. “I won't put up with misbehavior.”

One of the hardest things to teach trainers is how to rate students. In small departments, trainers often know the people they train. It is hard not to bend to such subtle influences as gender, race and likeability, says Kaminsky. “All those things come into play in performance evaluation,” he explains.

His answer is an objective system of measurements, such as the San Jose field training evaluation model he helped pioneer. It consists of a scale with definitions of performance attached to some of the scale's numbers. For example, on a five-point scale, “1” might mean unacceptable, “3” acceptable, and “5” superior. The numbers in between, “2” and “4,” are the gray areas where performance falls between the two adjacent definitions.

Kaminsky admits these judgements are subjective, but he is okay with that. “The people selected to be trainers know what the job looks like,” he explains. “They know if a candidate's performance is acceptable, unacceptable or in between.” A form that asks for numerical evaluations in 28 to 34 categories tends to average out any subjectivity and produce an accurate profile, he says. It also helps trainers pinpoint where students need additional work.

Some train-the-trainer courses focus only on teaching. Others emphasize teaching specific courses using existing materials. “We try to make our materials instructor-proof,” says Sharro. “We can't just take a course that we teach in a residential setting like Emmitsburg and teach it in field. We redesign it from the ground up, adding more enrichment material, such as examples, exercises and PowerPoints.”

Yet trainers do not always deliver courses the way they are designed. “It's up to the instructor how to run his or her classroom,” says Sharro. Sometimes, their decisions give him pause. “We spent months carefully crafting a one-week course on radiological emergency preparedness, and then I hear one instructor did it in the field in one day. The reason: ‘We didn't need those pesky exercises.' ”

North Carolina's Justice Academy, on the other hand, teaches police trainers to design their own courses. “Our instructional design course is based on the military model,” says Schaefer. “It teaches trainers how to look at a training problem and write a curriculum to solve the deficiency.”

Schaefer not only teaches police trainers how to write measurable training objectives, but also how to do a thorough literature review. This ensures they are familiar with the most recent thinking in their field. It also protects them from litigation.

“All around the country, officers are being sued and questions come up about their training,” Schaefer explains. “You have to back up your lesson plan with the most current literature. If it's not clearly documented, you've created a liability.”

Post Training
Virtually all train-thetrainer programs ask trainees to teach a class before they leave. It is a chance to show that they have learned, if not mastered, the theories and practice of adult education and classroom management.

Yet once trainers are back home, what happens? Most experienced trainers recommend that new trainers work with more experienced teachers. That happens in most larger departments and many small organizations as well. Yet there is no formal mechanism to follow the progress of new trainers. Many departments track them by reviewing student feedback. Eventually, word gets around who is good and who's not.

Nor do trainers require recertification. “That's an issue in the fire service at every level,” says Wieder. “Since 1974, NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] has been certifying instructors, and there are now 15 or 20 protocol standards. Yet once they take their class and get certified, they're good for life. The same is true for police.”

That may be changing, says Sharro. He says the Department of Homeland Security's new National Incident Management System (NIMS) addresses preparedness and training. “The new NIMS certification standard deals with instructor quality and standards,” he says. “While those standards still need to be worked out, at least there's a call for standards. There's a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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