Author: Jeanette Dyson Face-to-face simulation exercises are often cited as the most effective way to accelerate learning and enhance professional development in the aid sector. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for more flexible training options that offer comparable learning benefits. Following a successful pilot phase, Training in Aid’s REM-Systems (Remote Exercise Management Systems) has the potential to revolutionise training for emergency response workers.
The benefits of simulation training In all walks of life, learning is most effective when we perform, repeat and practice actions in a safe environment monitored by skilled teachers, coaches and/or facilitators.
As Training in Aid founder, Rich Parker, explained: “Training simulations replicating real-life emergency scenarios have been used for many years as a way for aid sector organisations and teams to acquire and maintain essential field skills.
While it’s certainly an effective approach, proven to accelerate learning and enhance professional development, it’s not without issues.”
Above: traditional face-to-face simulation trainning. Photos courtesy of WHO/Francisco Guerrero
Challenges of face-to-face simulations Field simulation training for aid sector workers involves bringing together professionals from different organisations, provinces and even countries. As well as the logistical challenges, it can be a financially demanding process, although the expense is justified by the quality and longevity that this type of learning delivers. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted another challenge; how do you bring people together for field-based training when international borders are closed, and towns and cities are in lockdown?
Training when it’s needed most By their very nature, global issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which usually have the greatest impact on the world’s most vulnerable communities, place even greater demands on the aid sector. Ironically, at the very time when aid sector personnel need to be prepared and ready to respond, the most effective form of training – face-to-face simulation - is unavailable. “The recent pandemic has thrown a spotlight on how reliant the aid and humanitarian sector is on face-to-face training. It highlighted a real need for an effective, robust training system that delivers the benefits associated with team-based exercises,” said Rich.
Until now the only alternatives have been individual scenario training or very basic tabletop exercises using webinar discussions or written exchange. While there’s certainly a role for all forms of learning within any training programme, studies show that learning is accelerated and longer lasting with simulation training.
Understanding the training needs of the aid sector and the challenges that needed to be overcome, early during the COVID lockdown, Training in Aid began the search for an effective alternative to face-to-face training. Working with one tech partner in particular who has led innovations in other professional arenas, Training in Aid developed an innovative new training solution for the humanitarian sector known as Remote Exercise Management Systems or REM-Systems.
A genuine alternative to face-to-face training REM-Systems is a new approach for aid organisations that takes face-to-face team exercises into the virtual world. As opposed to a press and play training programme, REM-Systems is a training platform where live, interactive training can take place.
The REM-Systems interface
“REM-Systems takes the face-to-face simulation model and places it online. Partners are engaging in live exercises run by real people, the difference is they don’t need to leave their workspace or office to benefit from the training,” said Rich.
REM-Systems training involves in-depth preparation, and is facilitated by world-leading trainers.
The New Zealand Medical Assistance Team (NZMAT) became the first organisation to pilot the innovative REM-Systems approach. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NZMAT management had planned and budgeted for several roster capacity building and teambuilding events during the 2020 calendar year, but like most organisations, had to postpone its onsite training calendar indefinitely.
However, NZMAT management was determined to find other ways of meaningfully engaging its roster members this year. NZMAT had also been part of a global discussion with the Emergency Medical Teams Secretariat at the World Health Organization (WHO) on finding better, more agile distance learning solutions to complement or even replicate face-to-face simulations. As a result, NZMAT was a natural partner to participate in the REM-Systems pilot.
The REM-Systems process Prior to the training day, a discovery meeting with NZMAT partners enabled Training In Aid to develop a bespoke training exercise that addressed the specific training and development needs of the NZMAT personnel.
The resulting Crisis Management Simulation training, which centred around managing the safety of field personnel during the aftermath of a fictional cyclone in the Pacific , involved 14 participants working in three teams. Each team was given a different operational role and different virtual location, so they had to work collectively to solve the crisis in the same way as would happen in the real world. Prior to the exercise, all delegates were required to participate in a pre-exercise familiarisation programme. This involved a guided video tour of the REM-Systems platform, including how to send and receive information.
On the day of the exercise, participants logged into REM-Systems at the designated time, from their workplace. In addition to the NZMAT partners, who were located throughout New Zealand, the training was operated by Training in Aid facilitators and WHO observers stationed in Switzerland, UK, Australia and USA, giving a true test of REM-Systems’ international capability.
Via video conferencing, teams were briefed and allocated a facilitator to support and provide ongoing assessment of their performance. The Exercise Control team (Excon) initiated the scenario and controlled the flow of information and tasks, known as injects. Planned breakout sessions allowed facilitators to give timely feedback and guidance where required. As with field simulation exercises, the exercise involved additional live interplay through role playing. Excon members acted as reporters, family members and government officials, challenging the teams’ strategies and processes and developing their decision making, leadership and communication skills.
“The advantage of providing live training is that we can control the flow of information, increasing or decreasing the frequency of injects, to challenge but not overwhelm the teams. By having facilitators monitoring the teams throughout, they can assist by provide relevant, in-the-moment feedback that enables team members to get more from the training,” said Rich.
On completion of the exercise, planned team debriefs enabled discussion, feedback and analysis from all exercise attendees to consolidate learning.
A new way of working The NZMAT pilot paved the way for a much broader series of exercises in the months that followed involving a wide range of UN agencies, international NGOs, regional response organisations, governments and academic institutions. It proved a vital test for the true potential of this ground-breaking remote training system.
Feedback from participants, trainers and observers indicated that the REM-Systems’ Crisis Management Simulation training was an appropriate, interactive and challenging exercise that largely met both the stated outcomes and individual participant needs. Anonymous feedback data from participants showed: - 100% of participants rated the overall exercise experience as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. - 100% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that the exercise aims and objectives were relevant to their needs. - 100% of participants recommended this remote exercise for other Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) rosters around the world. - 86% firmly declared that they would take part in similar exercises again.
Participants’ qualitative comments reflected the quantitative feedback:
“Good, complex scenario. I particularly liked that it evolved throughout the exercise and the focus shifted.” “Insightful and enjoyable. Cemented previous learning as well as provided future learning.”
The successful pilot, combined with the positive participant experience, strongly indicated that REM-Systems is a viable delivery model for team-based emergency scenario exercises, offering cost-effective, convenient and flexible training to complement face-to-face exercises.
“Overall, REM-Systems exceeded our expectations. The pilot helped to identify areas that could be improved in the future and the need for reliable internet connectivity. Importantly, it showed us that real-time remote learning can deliver the same learning benefits and intensity of face-to-face simulations,” commented Rich.
Potential for the future Within the context of the international travel restrictions imposed by the global, COVID-19 pandemic, REM-Systems has proven to be a flexible alternative to face-to-face situation training.
Yet it offers so much more.
REM-Systems has the potential to complement face-to-face training by introducing technology and social media that reflect today’s connected world into the training mix. It also offers a cost-effective mechanism for delivering more frequent refresher training for humanitarian workers, giving REM-Systems the potential to revolutionise emergency response training.