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Between Alarms: October 2016


September 21, 2016
By Arjuna George

The best thing fire-service members can do once they have solid foundations of fire fighting is to pass on their skills; we owe it to those who taught us, and to our future firefighters. Our job as senior firefighters is to move from the student to teacher.

When I first joined the fire service, I didn’t consider at the time that I would one day be teaching recruits and other firefighters, or that it would be so rewarding. The ultimate gift we can give back to the fire service is to share our knowledge and mould our future firefighters.

Fire services provide some training on instructing, but for the volume of teaching we actually do, the training is pretty basic. Some firefighters might have taken a fire-service instructor course, some may have post-secondary training, but most learn to teach by doing.

When it comes to teaching methods, some firefighters are better in classrooms, some are better on the training ground, but both are needed and vastly important. Just as you can lead from the middle, you can also instruct from the middle. All forms of instruction are needed, including lead instructors, company officers and fellow firefighter mentors. All are important and required for a fire service’s future.

Recruitment and retention are continuing problems for many volunteer departments, and that means teachers are even more valuable. With more and more junior members in our departments and fewer seasoned veterans, passing on our knowledge is paramount.

So how do we get these skills needed to teach without going to university for four years? To me, teaching comes down to passion, drive and commitment. If you dedicate the time to learn the skill and have the passion to share it, you will be a great teacher.

Being a teacher makes you a better firefighter; the more you teach, the better you become. A firefighter preparing to teach something is forced to learn everything he or she can about the subject. Teaching requires time spent digging deeper to find all the information, which results in the teacher becoming more knowledgeable. It’s a win-win – your department gains a teacher and you become a valued mentor to your brothers and sisters, while at the same time enhancing your personal development.

Being a teacher takes certain skills, but they can be learned. Consider the following ideas that might help you hone your teaching skills.

Teachers should commit to learning continually, staying current with techniques and trends, and dedicating the time to know the material inside and out. Don’t just put in time learning, put in quality, deliberate time in order to excel to expert level.

As teachers and mentors of our craft we must be patient, allowing the adult learners to absorb the information.

It is crucial to find a balance of encouragement and toughness. Adult learners like to be treated with respect, but also need to be pushed to get the most out of them. No one wants it too easy, or too hard that they fail over and over again. We must help learners feel successful and that they are progressing.

Make the learning environment fun, interesting, challenging and worth their time.

Instructors should be respectful of their students’ time by managing their drills. Time management is a skill that takes lots of practice to master. Stay on track, follow your lesson plan and keep the drill focused and on topic.

Share what you have. Share your presentations, your videos, your stories, your pictures, and most of all share your knowledge. It is our job!

Always be flexible and willing to adjust your plans. I can guarantee that sometimes your well-planned drill will go awry and you will need to think fast, and switch things up. Have a Plan B and even C.

Be open. Fire services are evolving businesses and our jobs, tactics and methods, are continually changing thanks to new science, testing, technology and practices. An excellent instructor needs to be able to be open to and adapt to new methods, new techniques and new equipment.

Know thy stuff. Teachers should know their equipment, environment, people, props, and their own skills. Don’t pretend you know things you don’t – it should be OK to say I don’t know. In the book Turn your ship around!, author David Marquet writes: “All learning starts with the assumption of I don’t know. If the leader/instructor says I don’t know, it makes it safe for the whole team to say I don’t know.”

Share your knowledge in a number of ways. Mix things up with classroom sessions and hands on.

Become a student of teaching and you will find it to be the most rewarding job. Thank you to all my instructors, teachers, and mentors who have helped me love the fire service and to be the best firefighter and instructor I can be. 


Arjuna George is the acting fire chief of operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C., and has served on the department since 1997. ageorge@saltspringfire.com   @AJGeorgefire


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