Virtual Training Makes a Real Impact for Disaster Relief Volunteers

Tom Daley

To outwit a global pandemic, Team Rubicon adapts its online training resources.

“Who knows,” asked Jack Ginther of the group of 17 Greyshirts dialing in from across the country, “if a Level 1 trauma center is the most or least capable of providing care?” 

“Most!” answered a chorus of gruff, slightly distorted voices coming over the video conference. “That’s right,” Ginther follows up, “Level 1 provides the most care and Level 5 provides the least.” 

Jack Ginther of the National Training Shop

Ginther is an employee of Team Rubicon’s National Training Shop, the body that trains and supports the hundreds of volunteer instructors in TR. Tonight he’s teaching a Train the Trainers class on “Safety Officer,” one of Team Rubicon’s new virtual instructor-led training courses. 

The Greyshirts in the class have all either led safety officer training at territory workshops or served as safety officer on an operation. They know the material—and could teach it in the field any day—but now, they’re preparing to instruct in a fully digital environment. This means they’re training to host their own online video conferences where they’ll teach the safety officer training course to fellow Greyshirts and administer qualification exams—all from the safety of their own homes. In this Train the Trainers class they’re learning useful techniques for teaching via video conference, like to always use three instructors: One to present, one to navigate slides, and one to moderate conversation in the chat. 

As the evening wears on, Greyshirts retell stories, dole out friendly ribbing, and share their “compliance hacks” from the field. It’s easy to forget we’re all hundreds of miles away, that is, until someone’s hungry six-year-old sticks their head into frame. The final exercise of the class is for each of the instructors being trained to take the same exam they will be administering in the course. If they pass, they’ll join the 800 virtual instructors that the National Training Shop hopes to have ready by the end of 2020.   

Adjusting to a New Abnormal

This is what training looks like in the time of COVID-19. Throughout its 10-year history, Team Rubicon has primarily relied on in-person territory workshops to teach volunteers the hands-on work of disaster response and recovery. During the coronavirus pandemic, shelter-in-place orders and social distancing put an abrupt halt to that and presented a serious obstacle for Team Rubicon. “To make sure Greyshirts are safe, we had to challenge our assumptions about what training looks like and how it’s accessed,” said Laura Silva, Deputy Director of Learning and Insights. The solution was to go virtual.

To do so, the National Training Shop developed a slate of new virtual instructor-led training courses. Each is designed to replicate the intimate, collaborative experience of a territory workshop and to allow Team Rubicon to continue building capacity remotely. Over the last three months, the National Training Shop has targeted its roll-out of virtual instructor-led training courses toward high-demand, high-skill roles in the COVID-19 environment. The courses currently being offered are:

  • “Logistics Section Chief”
  • “Planning Section Chief”
  • “Recon/Advon”
  • “Safety Officer”
  • “Site Survey” 

Most of them cater to experienced volunteers looking to step up and lead an influx of Greyshirts who have been motivated to join Team Rubicon’s nationwide response to COVID-19. For newer Greyshirts, Ginther recommends taking “Site Survey” which teaches you how to assess the scene of a disaster and write work orders.

Learning from the Moment, Looking Toward the Future

Another online capability that Team Rubicon developed to help Greyshirts adapt to the pandemic is flash learning. These quick courses provide on-demand and up-to-date guidance specifically for COVID-19 response operations. Each training consists of short written and illustrated instructions that can be scrolled through in a few minutes. They provide practical information a Greyshirt would want to check before stepping onto a job site. For example, in the “Preferred Minimum PPE Requirements” course, you can see what you should be wearing depending on whether you’re serving in a low, medium, or high-risk environment. In another one of these micro-trainings, Greyshirts can learn post-op decontamination protocols to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Online courses taken during the first fully digital training campaign.

Team Rubicon has used online training since 2013 and began developing its own courses for the digital Training Center on Roll Call in 2015. But it wasn’t until the outbreak of coronavirus that online training became Team Rubicon’s central means of equipping Greyshirts with the skills and knowledge to serve. During a national training campaign that ran between March 14 and April 14 the number of online trainings jumped from 40 per day to 358 per day. In all, 9,847 online training courses were completed over the span of just four weeks. The success of the first fully digital national training campaign, and the development of innovative techniques like virtual instructor-led training and flash learning, mean that online training will continue to be used, even after safety restrictions have been lifted.

As for the volunteer instructors in Ginther’s Train the Trainers class, they were excited about the potential for reaching more Greyshirts with virtual instructor-led training, but all agreed that they looked forward to getting together again in person.    

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