During a normal year, the Air Force Safety Center delivers in-house safety education and training to approximately 2,000 students through 11 professional courses in 70 sessions, with course lengths ranging from three days to seven weeks. This includes all personnel assigned to safety staff and/or supporting safety Air Force-wide who go through the Aircraft Mishap Investigation Course, or AMDI, at Kirtland Air Force Base, ensuring the Air Force has fully trained mishap investigators.
On March 13, AFSEC cancelled in-residence courses indefinitely, including two courses that were in session, due to the coronavirus. The cancelation led to 24 cancelled classes and 720 U.S. and international military and civilian students being denied access to safety education and training requirements over the subsequent four months, but AFSEC is actively doing something about that.
Michael Gann, AFSEC’s Training Instruction Branch chief was in the middle of teaching. “We were all sent home … I was completing the first week of AMIC,” Gann said, after he was given orders to halt in-person operations and had to deliver the news to his students.
“All classes are canceled, everyone must move out of lodging (and) you’ll need to make arrangements to return to home station,” Gann advised his class that day. The AMIC students who had to return home that day, eventually, got into future virtual classes with some now attending one of two virtual AMIC courses in progress.
With in-resident courses cancelled, the safety center needed to implement some changes to the courseware and the platform used to facilitate Air Force safety training needs as quickly as possible. Accepting the challenges head on, the Training & Force Development Division adapted and overcame the issues and constraints imposed by new platforms to accommodate students and make it work.
“Instructors, under the superb leadership of Mr. Gann, started training sessions using various platforms such as One Note, then Zoom,” explained Gwendolyn Dooley, AFSEC Training & Force Development Division chief, concerning the transition in platforms. “Now the division has transitioned to using Microsoft Teams (Commercial Virtual Remote) and sessions are continuous.”
Gann explained that a course, as technologically advanced as AMIC, teaches students advanced problem solving and how to identify causal factors in mishaps is tough with no face-to-face time. He continued by saying, “We are giving students something to go forward with, which is better than not having classes at all.”
In May, the Training and Force Development Division reinstated three courses – the Safety and Accident Investigation Board President Course at Kirtland AFB and the Board President Course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, working to decrease the backlog of required safety training for the Air Force by training 76 personnel in six virtual classes. Transitioning to six courses in July, an additional 168 students are scheduled to attend seven classes by the end of the month with more slated for August.
Christopher Johnsen, a Safety Career broadener assigned to the Distance Learning Branch, explained that while in-residence classes were postponed and cancelled, they are now being taught virtually.
“Students are still coming to these classes online to get what they need … to go out there and protect that resource, protect that mission and make sure the Air Force gets what they need from mishap investigations,” Gann explained.
Thus far, Dooley and her team have completed four virtual classes with two in progress including AMIC, the center’s most requested class. The AMIC course typically hosts about 30 students, which has now increased to an average of 60 under the new virtual construct.
“Linking into the classroom and seeing/hearing how great my/our instructors are handling the virtual environment, to hear the student’s interactions, and know there’s no degradation in our standard of excellence, is fantastic,” Dooley said.
Both Gann and Johnsen agreed that technology was the biggest issue of the transition, having no hands on training or help in the beginning. “Trying to take all this technology and corral it into a usable platform so we can teach was difficult,” Gann explained.
The AFSEC Training and Force development staff had to work through challenges. Johnsen noted that there were technological issues not within the control of the division like infrastructure support: bandwidth, hardline, Wi-Fi issues, etc.
“You have people that are at home … and not everyone … has the same setup,” Johnsen said.
The safety center is doing business in a new way to facilitate the virtual courses. Some changes include providing connectivity checks for students before each class and having additional instructors ready to teach.
“The BPC-COS course instructors had to come into the building, 30 minutes prior to showtime, to ensure they were ready … They did, that’s what we (AFSEC) do,” Dooley explained.
Starting in March, and then into April, instructors worked course revisions to transition in-residence courseware to virtually deliverable content.
Additionally, the center has increased communication with the major command safety directors and safety training point of contacts to reduce their workload, only requiring them to provide student names.
Dooley explained that the course managers, under the leadership of James Spradley, Training Management Branch chief, enrolled all students into each of the classes, saving the major commands countless man-hours.
“It increased my staff’s workload, but ensured we had the right students in the right category so, it’s worth it,” Dooley said.
The Training and Force Development Division have also gained two new instructors since March. They were immersed in hands-on training at the Air Force crash lab on Kirtland AFB to prepare them to teach the mishap investigation process through hands-on experiential labs virtually and/or in-residence to students.
Other efforts to make the courses impactful include additional crash-lab exhibits and video footage of aircraft wreckage, engines and material factors exhibits. The AMIC student exam was also modified for questionnaire open-book format.
Dooley also lauded the total team effort, with support from Col. William Culver, AFSEC’s previous vice commander, and Maj. Gen. John T. Rauch Jr., Air Force chief of safety and Air Force Safety Center commander, along with instructors in other AFSEC divisions.
“The first virtual course received great reviews from students,” Dooley said. The division gathered instructor feedback and the major issue was not being able to see the students. Going forward, Microsoft Teams CVR will be the platform used, so the students will be able to see the instructors and vice versa.
“For me, it’s quite a testament to the professionalism of the people that we have here at the center,” Johnsen said. “Going from teaching classes (in person) where you get a feel for your students and you’re able to develop that interpersonal connection to engage with, to a virtual environment … I think that’s a pretty big deal.”
Matthew Shover, Distance Learning Branch chief, developed and taught the “Effectiveness of Virtual Learning” class to AFSEC personnel, who teach various sessions to empower them with tips on how to deliver their content in the virtual environment.
“Matthew has a master’s degree in e-learning, plus about 15 years’ experience as a classroom instructor, so he was absolutely the best choice to teach this class,” Dooley said when explaining AFSEC’s efforts in getting everyone trained to teach virtually.
“Leadership has determined this to be a stop-gap measure going forward and we will just have to see … what our future plans will be,” Johnsen explained. “As of right now, the best we can do is to convert in-person classes to virtual as quickly as possible.”
“We don’t know when face-to-face classes will begin, but online classes will continue at least through September,” Gann said.
“While so far, so good – we’re also looking forward to a return to in-class teaching,” Dooley added. “The Air Force Safety Center is committed to providing students supporting safety Air Force-wide with world-class continuous professional development no matter what the platform.”