Electronic learning tools make it easier for training administrators

Know when to retrain?
By Bob Galvin 
Law Enforcement Technology 

How current are your officers with their preparedness learning, skills and certifications? A bit baffled? It's a tough but critical question, and one which probably would trigger a different answer from any of the thousands of police departments blanketing the United States. This is because training requirements vary widely from one state to the next, and so does the administration, tracking and documentation of this training.

This article will examine the trends and challenges tied to skills assessment and records management of police personnel, and how present software offerings can help training administrators create, store, manage, share and deliver learning content with impressive results.

Presently, the proliferation of Learning Management Software (LMS) products and the tightening of training standards at the state and local levels are converging. The software aims to address several trends, with the biggest being higher accountability for local police departments and academies to ensure personnel are consistently trained, tested and recertified.

In response to the tougher training standards, law enforcement agencies are insisting upon technology that offers quicker data entry of training information into databases, steady notification of upcoming recertification expirations, more individualized training reports that can be generated instantly, and easier creation and tracking of personnel records that can be searched, updated and shared more efficiently.

Most states in the United States have a peace officer standards and training agency, called a POST, that sets training and certification standards for law enforcement agencies. The POSTs require rigid adherence to certification and recertification, testing and tracking of officers' training, and must be provided with annual personnel records reports.

Without automated tracking of a mid-sized or large police department's or academy's personnel records, the task of monitoring classes, tests, certifications and the battery of other requirements can quickly turn into a nightmare. What's more, when employee records must be sent to a state POST or comparable standards organization at the end of the year, many law enforcement agencies are confronted with scores of records missing crucial updates. This can lead to decertification of delinquent officers.

Numerous software programs have emerged to help public safety agencies comply with recertification standards. These programs fall into specific categories: Small- to medium-scale public safety LMS, large-scale public safety LMS, niche-focused LMS and generic/commercial LMS.

Time and data entry savings

The Reno (Nevada) Police Department acquired a generic LMS a few years ago. The software instantly had two strikes against it ? lacking key features critical for administering law enforcement personnel and, because the city purchased the software license, combining police records with those of all of the city's other departments. Recalls Susi Havens, administrator of the police department's training division: "It was a very difficult, labor-intensive process to find anything, to create reports, to enter information. Some things just absolutely couldn't be entered."

Then in 2005, the Reno PD purchased the Skills Manager V.7x records management system from Portland, Oregon-based Crown Pointe Technologies. Crown Pointe, a provider of small- to medium-scale public safety LMS, specializes in software for public safety organizations, including state POSTs, large and small police agencies, police academies, corrections facilities and 911 call centers. Skills Manager is particularly well tailored for tracking law enforcement personnel's career development from date of hire to retirement. The software administers and documents employee records, certifications, general and firearms training, plus employment and education. Several integrated add-on modules also are available. These modules catalog firearms and equipment; manage images, documents and computer files linked to employee and course records, and test and score forms via automated scanning; and manage course registration and class scheduling.

In Nevada, the state POST also has automated its records management process, making the exchange of police personnel information much easier compared to prior manual methods. The POST also uses Skills Manager to maintain an aggregate database of training and certification records for personnel from all police and detention agencies in the state.

Havens has reconfigured the Reno PD's course catalog to use course identification numbers recognized at the Nevada POST, with the goal of eventually reporting personnel records to the POST electronically in lieu of paper forms. "With Skills Manager, it has been an extreme timesaver," Havens says. "It's reduced the number of people required for data entry and documentation."

Scheduling and tracking recertifications

Scheduling police officers for courses needed to gain their recertification is no longer the torturous, manual experience it once was with software that now automates this task, according to Officer Joe Schilling, Field Training Office coordinator in the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau.

Manual scheduling proved cumbersome and time consuming. Using Skills Manager, Schilling says course scheduling and other aspects of personnel records tracking has been dramatically streamlined. "The data entry is simplified because we can now show, by scheduling officers for mandatory courses ahead of time, that they registered, attended and passed," Schilling explains. Furthermore, he adds, "We used to have three data entry people, and now we have one. And we're able to develop an electronic report that the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (the state POST) will accept."

Firearms training focus

Cornerstone Applications, located in Chattaroy, Washington, is an example of a focused-niche LMS provider, fulfilling a single need. The firm's software has until now been devoted to recording all information on firearms training. The software, RangeMaster Pro, is targeted at law enforcement and security agencies, and designed to store and retrieve officer, firearm, firearm qualification, maintenance and equipment information.

This fall, Cornerstone Applications will introduce an expanded version of RangeMaster Pro that includes the original feature set with several new capabilities. The new version will track training, custody log information and location information. Also included is automatic notification of pending expirations, more reports, expanded security plus a data mining feature.

As for adding new features requested by customers, "We did very little customization of the original version," says Cornerstone's co-founder Annie Bayley. "It was mostly limited to new reports. However, we have taken countless suggestions from our customers and incorporated them into the new release."

Modules form integrated system

Pleasanton, California-based Tiburon Inc. is a large-scale public safety LMS provider, selling its software packages comprised of numerous integrated modules targeted mainly to police departments in cities exceeding 50,000 residents and to counties of more than 100,000 people. The company's emphasis is to provide everything in a comprehensive system.

Tiburon's software systems include computer-aided dispatch (CAD), records management, investigation management, and mobile dispatch and field reporting. When combined, the modules form Tiburon's larger integrated system for law enforcement. However, notes Jean Schommer, director of marketing, "While we sell our records management modules separately, they are most effective as full-blown, integrated systems."

An example of this integrated approach is Tiburon's recent installation of a $1.1-million fully distributed, statewide CAD system with integrated mapping for the Nebraska State Patrol. The system networks separate CAD systems in six emergency dispatch communication centers throughout the state.

Police academy needs

State police academies also have benefited from the capabilities of learning software, although training needs differ greatly. According to Lloyd Lowry, information services director for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (ODPSST), a reoccurring problem five years ago was instructor scheduling management. The ODPSST, which has full-time instructors plus a pool of 400 part-time instructors (who teach most of the courses), had been using only a few instructors from the part-time pool. "We wanted to equalize the load (of available instructors)," says Lowry. "So, we needed to make sure our information on the instructors was accurate and kept in one place."

The training academy eventually purchased the Acadis Readiness Suite from Bloomington, Indiana-based ENVISAGE Technologies. Another type of large-scale public safety LMS, the suite's automated scheduling module balances available instructors and optimizes scheduling of training resources, replacing several Microsoft Access databases that had been created.

Like Crown Pointe Technologies' Skills Manager program, the Acadis modules are designed specifically for law enforcement training. ENVISAGE so far has sold mainly to federal agencies and POST academies, whereas Skills Manager is used more by police departments and POSTs. The ODPSST uses Acadis for registration to maintain personnel records and housing assignments at the academy's 175-room dormitory, or "hotel" as Lowry describes it, which houses 350 students.

Lowry explains that it's equally critical that the academy can build "what-if" scheduling scenarios with the Acadis scheduling module. "If we add a course to our curriculum, we want to model it to see if it affects our instructor population," Lowry describes. "Did we have the resources to add this course, and what did it cost?"

Generic software applications

The A-TrainES from Attend Software in Rocklin, California, represents the generic/commercial LMS category of software offerings. It can be used by several industries, including law enforcement. The A-TrainES database is able to organize, control access and deliver content from any number of content servers regardless of their location. While A-TrainES offers functions similar to software designed exclusively for law enforcement, some extensive customizing may be required.

Attend explains that the software can keep training "hidden" from selected learners, make other training accessible to everyone or report on all training. It can automate class reminders, post-training evaluations and assessments, outstanding requirements, and expiring certifications. These capabilities can be found in the other software categories, though with stronger public safety emphasis and features.

Thwarting litigation

A chief reason more law enforcement agencies are turning to learning software that closely matches their training needs is the ever looming threat of litigation against a police officer and his department. The potential litigation usually stems from use-of-force incidents. While POST organizations can remove certifications of police officers, it is up to individual police agencies to prevent this from happening by requiring that standards and certifications are always met.

"The fear is we're not going to be able to defend that what we do is the right thing," says Carl Bart, facilities manager for the Maryland Public Safety Education and Training Center.

By automating the administration and records management of each officer's career development, any aspect of training from weapons/equipment management to testing and scoring to course registration and record inquiry can be closely tracked and instantly referenced.

Bart cites a case in point for how vital law enforcement learning software can be in potentially litigious situations. About five years ago, a shooting incident occurred at a Maryland Transportation Authority Police tollbooth. Training personnel had left for the day, so the chief asked his major about the training status of a dozen officers involved. Since the department had been using Crown Pointe's Skills Manager software, the major was able to generate training records and firearms scores built with the software for all the officers in the shootout within 10 minutes of the chief's request.

"He (the chief) knew when they were last qualified, what weapons they carried and weapons approved for use by serial number," Bart recalls. "Within an hour of the shooting, the chief held a news conference. When he was asked about the shooting, he could confirm the officers were all qualified. He responded so quickly and with such detail that the press knew it was a dead end to explore that issue any further."

Web-based programs gain momentum

As more law enforcement agencies adopt some kind of software to monitor personnel certifications, another trend will soon follow: the emergence of Web-based records management systems. Most vendors, including those discussed in this article, already provide Web-based access with their software to some degree.

"The clear advantage of an Internet-based system is you can have one data management system in a state, and personnel can simply go online and enter data when they want to check whether or not officers have met their training requirements for that year," says Ray Franklin, executive assistant director for the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions. "The question is whether information regarding law enforcement officers should ever be on the Internet," Franklin continues. "Some states are still grappling with that issue."

National standard on the horizon?

Franklin also serves as the technology chair for the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), with which he is working to establish a national model standard for the management of training certification information by law enforcement. Franklin feels such a standard is necessary because states should be able to share information about officers with certain skill sets. IADLEST endorsed the standard's establishment at its Spring 2007 member conference.

Software must fit needs, agency type and budget

Acquiring a learning management system takes time to research so the software fits an agency's particular needs, whether it's a mid-sized police department or full-scale academy. So, what should training administrators and their management look for?

Before shopping it's important to be realistic about what learning software can accomplish, says Franklin, also the director of the Maryland Public Safety Education and Training Center. "We're talking about 50 different POSTs, models and ways of operating," Franklin says. "The reality is there is probably not an off-the-shelf solution that will never require modification." Thus, purchasing add-on modules may be the best and most economical way to keep building onto a learning system even though some customizing may be necessary.

As for cost, if the budget is tight, it might be best to find a software maker who provides packages for both large and small to mid-sized police agencies with flexible pricing. Many vendors are set up to offer software only for large law enforcement forces.

Finally, look for adequate service and support, but also expect to pay for it. Trouble-shooting and modifications are inevitable and require time and special expertise.

Today's LMS programs for the law enforcement and public safety sectors are well timed in a climate of increasing enforcement of training standards at the state and local levels. While liability is a huge concern, learning software can help minimize this threat and simultaneously save substantial time by automating the many intricacies of managing officers' professional development and their records.

Sharing of records also will become easier as software providers gradually make Web-based solutions available. The advantages ? higher visibility of an officer's skills, certifications and overall training compliance ? are clear and compelling.

Finding the right software will be a matter of choice, training management needs and budget for any agency. Modularized software programs that can be added to fit growing training needs make automation easier and more affordable.

As training standards continue to be given a higher priority, efforts to establish national standards will have a definite positive impact on state and local training entities, as well as on automated solutions. Standardized data management at the national level may make perfect sense and help law enforcement and public safety agencies share more information more readily.

Charles Lowry, president of Crown Pointe Technologies, feels that a national standard needs to go even further. "There needs to be a national curriculum and test items that measure information learned, which should all be provided to the police academies," Lowry says. This step, he adds, would ensure a higher degree of accountability among agencies for making sure the right course material is taught and learners can demonstrate the knowledge gained from training.

"The academies cannot be forced to use a national curriculum," Lowry says, "but make it available and people would jump on it."

Bob Galvin is a freelance writer who writes on topics related to law enforcement software and technology. His office is located in Oregon City, Oregon. Galvin can be reached by e-mail at rsgpr@msn.com 

Copyright 2007 Law Enforcement Technology

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