By Ed Brouwer
I sat down to write this column between wildfires in late June. Our wildland fire-suppression crew based in Osoyoos, B.C., had just returned from actioning one of the dozen or so fires that resulted from a lightning storm that passed through the area two days before. While we came off reasonably well, our neighbours two hours south in Wenatchee, Wash., suffered tremendous loss. A fire there scorched about 1,194 hectares (2,950 acres), destroyed 29 homes and damaged four business complexes in the commercial area to varying degrees. Although it is now thought that the Wenatchee fire was human-caused, the speed of fire spread is evidence of the tinder-dry conditions we were facing at the time.
Our crews remained on standby so I had a limited amount of time to work on this column (it was well overdue). One of my crews is made up mainly of Indo-Canadians who have names like Harsimran, Shiraz and Gurvir, and so I got tagged as Bindar Dundat. These guys crack me up. I have, in fact, been there and I’ve probably done that. And this, as strange as it may sound it, was the basis for this column.
I’m 62 years old and still completely sold to the Canadian fire service. I’ve been an officer for more 24 years now. My two sons, Aaron and Casey, and I were often the first ones geared up in SCBA and making entry. Both these guys are still active firefighters; Aaron with Prince George Fire Rescue and Casey with Osoyoos Fire Department, both in British Columbia. And, so my wife and daughter don’t feel left out, I have to tell you (proudly) that they have both spent hundreds of hours on the fire line as wildland firefighters.
The fact I’ve been there and done that has enabled me to be a successful trainer, and hopefully an equally successful mentor.
Although some folks say 60 is the new 40, my body tells me differently. More and more I find myself choosing the roles of incident commander and safety officer (lookout) rather than the gazelle running up the hill to dig a guard. I think subconsciously I have resisted that change. In many ways I have struggled with this aging thing. It bothered me that I wasn’t the best choice for the entry team.
And then the other day on the fire ground I realized that I failed to see the importance and necessity of my role change. In conversation with my crew I discovered that I do have valuable insight and experience to share. Many of you are in or entering this same season in your lives. Don’t sell yourself short, for you too can be a Bindar Dundat.
Please know that true mentoring isn’t in a group setting; it is generally between two people. As a mentor, you shouldn’t let the new guy struggle to reinvent the wheel. Help him or her, and invest time and energy into his or her progress. Spend time sharing your insights, struggles and victories. Challenge pupils with questions, and get them to think.
I noticed that there are a number of departments that send their senior members to various training events. Consider this: training can easily turn into a cost without return when we send someone for training who already has those needed skills or knowledge. I suggest choosing a younger firefighter; one who shows an interest in learning. Send him or her to as many training events as your department can afford. Invest in youth now and the dividends will be big in the future.
Every once in a while you come across students who actually want to learn more; they are curious. There are a couple of firefighters I’ve actually taken under my wing. Mentoring can become useless and frustrating when it is forced on individuals, so I have invited them to assist me in running our department’s training program.
Mentoring is a long-term path and is limited only by the experience of the mentor. You certainly cannot give more than you have to offer.
In the long run our job as training instructors is to make sure that our teams can function without us. It’s your responsibility to make sure that someone is ready to take your place, and that takes time and effort.
What if something were to happen to you, and you were unable to return to the department? Who knows where the training records are? Who would fill your role? Would your department have to start over?
And if you haven’t already, prepare others to take your place. Don’t wait too long.
If you are old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan Show, eight tracks and the Friendly Giant, then you should begin mentoring others immediately.
Yes, it is scary to switch roles, but, brother, it will without doubt be one of the best investments you’ll make.
Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue. He is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor/evaluator and an ordained disaster-response chaplain. Ed has written Trainer’s Corner for 13 of his 26 years in the fire service. Contact Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org