At fire and EMS services across the nation, two things seem to be in short supply: time and money. Yet, even as departments come under pressure to trim already-tight budgets, demands on EMTs and paramedics to complete time-consuming refresher and continuing education courses hasn't let up. It's a burden shared by their employers, who are responsible for making sure EMS responders are properly trained and ready to deploy.
For employers who provide the courses to their personnel, training costs associated with instructors, overtime and fuel costs are just some of their concerns. Another is scheduling classes for staff spread out geographically and working different shifts.
Fortunately, there's an option other than face-to-face instruction to assist in getting the required courses completed in a timely, cost-efficient manner—one that doesn't necessitate having everyone drive to a classroom at a specific time. By harnessing the convenience and portability of the Internet, online learning delivers classroom materials to the workplace or home, saving both time and money.
"Regardless of agency type or size, it's expensive to organize any kind of learning where delivery has to be in a classroom," says James N. Eastham, Jr., ScD, chief executive officer of CentreLearn Solutions, one of the largest providers of online learning for EMS. "You may have to pay overtime, facility charges and instructors. You may also have to teach the class multiple times to accommodate everyone. It's not very efficient. But a lot of these issues can be avoided by providing the class online."
Recent research bears that out: According to a 2009 survey of about 400 EMS agencies conducted by RFG Research, which specializes in tracking trends in emergency response, EMS managers who have incorporated online learning into their training efforts overwhelmingly say it has helped reduce costs. About half of respondents said online learning led to a reduction in overtime at their agencies. More than half (52%) said online learning had reduced instructor costs, while about the same number said online learning resulted in decreased fuel costs.
In the same report, researchers found that the number of overtime hours saved was substantial. Three-quarters of respondents reported savings of up to 500 hours a year. About 44% reported saving more than 500 hours, with some larger departments reporting savings of up to 10,000 hours.
Online learning has become so crucial to training efforts that only 17% of respondents said they would reduce online training if significant budget cuts were imposed on their organizations, with 27% indicating they would actually increase funding of their online learning programs if budget cuts were implemented.
Cost reduction wasn't the only benefit cited by EMS and fire managers. About two-thirds reported that the flexibility of Internet-based courses had made scheduling easier, while 86% said being able to have personnel complete training at times that were convenient for the individual and the agency was one of the biggest benefits.
In 2002, Kenneth Sternig, program director for Milwaukee County EMS, turned to online learning to help solve some of the logistical and cost issues of providing continuing education to more than 300 paramedics. In Wisconsin, 22 of the 72 hours of continuing education classes required every two years can be done online (the numbers vary by state).
A cost analysis determined that online learning is saving Milwaukee County EMS about 30 hours of overtime per paramedic per year, says Sternig. With an average overtime pay of about $45 an hour, that translates to $1,350 per person each year, or about $472,500 annually—savings that far exceed the approximately $49 per year per student Milwaukee County's commercial online-learning vendor charges.