Alex Molinari, NJ-Based Writer
Digital media saturates our landscape today. Some of it is essential, yet much of it seems to lack merit. Often, the stimulating content is just bait, designed to rack up clicks, views, sales, and the increasingly sought-after currency known as “influence” throughout our media. While “click bait” is ever-present to run up reporting numbers, influence, and public reach, catching the eye of the audience still remains paramount to many profit and non-profit business models. Clicks are often served up for profit alone and too often clutter and overshadow quality content. It can seem that the world has become one long advertisement.
While substantive media seems rare as we start 2019, it exists. Digital media has numerous applications, but with some digging, you can find refreshingly unassuming and inspired content that serves a very tangible purpose.
An example lies in Lambertville, New Jersey, where a small digital producer and developer named Stonehouse Media Incorporated (SHM) has pioneered its way into a digital media niche. They aren’t a company who gets their kicks from just clicks. By all accounts, they approach media with a quantifiable purpose that reaches far beyond profit.
Stonehouse Media is a multimedia company optimized to shape and deliver content that teaches, engages, and serves the audience with material that will last long after trends have shifted. Stonehouse is helping companies and organizations operate and grow efficiently, while distributing meaningful content with high production value. Some of their clients have invested in nourishing society with public information campaigns, while others educate and train professionals in their specific industry.
In the late 1990s, Stonehouse was approached by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and American Re-Insurance to create a distributable digital training solution for fire investigators on a large scale, delivered using everyday computers. (The Clinton Administration was working to find ways to combat arson following the many church fires that were ravaging the US.) The SHM team seized this challenge to produce a virtual reality learning program that was a first in the fire investigation field.
The program placed fire investigators inside a virtual reality scene to conduct the origin and cause examination, including witness interviews. The virtual reality program ran on PCs and was called interFIRE VR®. At the time, VR was being used for tours and games, but this program included learning, measurement, and the creation of a final report when completed. Stonehouse Media expanded the use of VR into training in the 90s, using CD-ROMs for distribution. With interFIRE VR, you investigated a fire scene, your actions were tracked, and to complete the experience, you had to close the investigation and produce a report for the prosecutor. The program also included a tutorial and a resource section that Stonehouse developed with experts directing. The resource section was created in HTML and ran in a browser on the CD. Once ported to the Internet, the resource section became the number one website for fire investigation for more than a decade. The project was ahead of its time and was developed to meet the short and long-term goals for this training and education initiative.
The interFIRE VR program was quickly noticed in the field of distributable virtual education, earning Stonehouse the attention of the US Secret Service, which needed a similar virtual training program. This time, electronic crime and fraud were the targets. Forward Edge, Forward Edge 2, and other video/VR programs produced by SHM trained law enforcement and the public about such topics as seizure of electronic evidence and identity theft.
Following Stonehouse Media’s success with interFIRE VR, Forward Edge, and other video/web-based projects, the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) took a leadership role in the fire investigation community and partnered with SHM to facilitate a “distance-learning network” that could be delivered to the fire investigation community worldwide. The IAAI was awarded a grant by the Department of Homeland Security through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program called the “Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program” with additional support coming from the ATF.
A platform created by SHM for the medical industry gave the team a perfect scaffolding for SHM to produce CFITrainer.net with the IAAI, the first online training network for fire investigators. Rod Ammon, the president of Stonehouse Media, said he felt grateful to the IAAI’s leadership, FEMA, and the ATF for putting things in motion with their experts and funding. “These partners had the vision and desire to continue to raise the bar in the fire investigation field. They knew what we had in production and technology, and they brought an international network of expertise.” Today, CFITrainer.net is the world leader for online training in fire investigation.
Jon Jones, the first project manager for the IAAI, said, “When we started CFITrainer in the fire service, I don’t think anybody had ever done it before. Believe me, it was breaking new ground. We never expected the growth we experienced.” CFITrainer.net is an online learning network and resource center with over 110,000 registered users that has delivered two million credit hours of training for fire investigation and allied professionals since its launch. Kirk Hankins, long-time chair for CFITrainer.net says, “CFITrainer is distinct from most digital media in that all the content is tied to industry standards, such as those from NFPA, which adds value to its content and usefulness to the users and their profession.”
CFITrainer is impressive not only in scope, but also in the way it offers a streamlined interface that helps users gather new and important information on demand. Ammon expressed discontent with the state of online learning prior to taking on these projects. “When we got into online learning, we were so frustrated with the user interfaces of learning management systems (LMS) and distance learning platforms that we built our own. We wanted to make interaction simple and have navigation be as easy as changing a channel, with some interactive aspects when valuable. LMS systems prioritized managing training records, not necessarily delivering high-quality video and graphics with the tracking and management in the background.” In this way, Stonehouse Media’s platform was crucial in the efforts of the IAAI to reach as many fire investigation professionals as possible with high production value and measurement.
The IAAI had fire investigation expertise at their disposal but needed infrastructure, production, and the ability to scale up the project. Stonehouse had designed the infrastructure to facilitate a simple interface and high-quality video, imagery and interaction when needed. SHM also produced the content that would be published on the platform. It’s incredibly rare for a company of this size to have the many facets of media infrastructure nailed down to complete a project of this magnitude.
The launch of CFITrainer.net brought professionals and students of varying backgrounds to its portal, offering the premiere outlet for professional learning and growth. Users of the platform represent a broad range of industries and expertise. Fire investigators, engineers, lawyers, scientists, professors, instructors, and students have found their way to the network and often rely on its new content.
The tenure of registered users is an intriguing data point; a slight majority of users have over 20 years of experience. This data demonstrates that the network has an up-to-date and substantive array of resources that benefit even industry veterans. The networks polling indicates that the vast majority of users (94%) report that this newly learned information has been utilized in the field, often several times over. The excellence of the learning network model that Stonehouse Media developed is proven by overwhelmingly positive user feedback and practical field use, even at the most stringent levels of analysis. CFITrainer.net is now a staple in the fire investigation field. The US Fire Administration, the ATF, and many post-secondary educational institutions rely on CFITrainer.net for their course prerequisites and classroom instruction support.
New SHM networks that follow a similar model include the Fire Hero Learning Network (FHLN) for firefighter health and safety at FHLN.net from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). Chief John Tippett, NFFF’s director of Fire Service Programs, says, “More than eight years ago, the Foundation launched the FHLN with one module, ‘Courage to Be Safe,’ our flagship program. Since that time, we have added 10 modules, an operational checklists feature, a certificate in risk reduction, a virtual decision-making program, and more! More than 85,000 firefighters have registered with the FHLN, a sign that the programs created by the NFFF are value-added components of a comprehensive training program and elevate the stature of the NFFF as a source for high-quality training.”
A third network, the Responder Safety Learning Network (RSLN), at RSLN.org is from the Emergency Responder Safety Institute and their ResponderSafety.com website. RSLN teaches traffic incident management and safe practices for working emergency incidents on the roadway. The project manager of ResponderSafety.com, Steve Austin, shared this about SHM, “We needed a full-service, tech savvy production company that shared our values, including high-quality content. Not only did Stonehouse deliver the quality, their team learned all about the business of roadway safety by integrating with our technical experts. Stonehouse combined this knowledge with their understanding of marketing to create content and products that helped make us the leader in our field.”
Another new network from FM Global is designed to teach fire fighters about fighting fires in sprinklered buildings. This network, developed by a leader in the insurance industry, is building an audience now. With a long relationship with the fire service, FM Global is known for its support and knowledge. Fire service professionals appreciate the content offered by a private-sector organization.
Stonehouse Media has had several unique opportunities to work with organizations and associations who appreciate the time and detailed fieldwork necessary for these projects. As organizations in both the public and private sector take note of Stonehouse’s strong reputation, the SHM team is brought in to lead the direction of projects that deliver a wide array of content in continuing education, marketing, and social media. Stonehouse Media’s body of work is highlighted online at www.stonehousemedia.com.