Guest blog

Old dog learns new tricks but longs for fire-college traditions
November 26, 2012
Written by Trent Elyea
Nov. 26, 2012, Collingwood, Ont. – I recently read Peter Sells’ Flashpoint blog about the new web-based training courses from the Center for Emergency Response and Public Safety that will be offered in partnership with the Ontario Fire College, and I agree that in some cases, online learning is the only way to go. I also understand that for those in remote parts of Ontario there is limited access to educational opportunities in our profession. Today, online learning is how we do business. Having said that, I am a little regretful that as things change, some will not enjoy the experience that I and others have had while attending the fire college.

I added up all the courses I have taken at the college over the 30 years I have been in the firefighting business, and the time totaled more than 18 months. I can’t begin to tell you the stories about the times that I enjoyed at the college, the people I have met and the friendships I have made during my stays there. Many of the people I know who are now running large, medium and small departments were in those initial and advanced courses on command, techniques of instruction and administration. Many of us ended up taking multiple courses together, and those sessions were like summer retreats or winter getaways: it wasn’t necessarily the course content or how they were delivered, but it was the essence of the camaraderie that made it so good - perfect strangers on the first day became great teams by the end of the courses. Granted, there were not the same limits then as there are now and the new policies and practices are in place likely for good reason – if only those walls could talk. We all shared a common bond and an affection and passion for why we were there: we didn’t attend because we had to, we didn’t attend because it was close; we attended because we could share information, learn and enjoy others who understood what we did and why we did it.

There is something to be said for progress but there is also something to be said for tradition. I remember the conventional thinking that all the instructors did at the fire college was burn us up in the smoke house and kill us in the simulator, all while wishing they would give us some more class time. Now, my staff come back and say all they do is classroom stuff and they wish they could get more time in the smoke house. Be careful what you wish for.

I remember the nine-week recruit course when the college paraded and the two Waynes – Wayne Sutherland and Wayne Bench – would bounce a quarter on the recruits’ beds to ensure they were properly made. The recruits had to eat at a special area in the lounge and when they walked through our wing to get to theirs, it was like shooting a gauntlet. I still think it was a tragedy that we lost the recruit course, if for no other reason than it taught the recruits the militarized rank and structure that is being forgotten in today’s departments. The graduation was a grand event and then the class picture was taken and hung on the walls for all to see. All those things are long gone; too bad, they were an integral part of what the college was.

I remember being at the fire college in 2001 when the attack took place on the twin towers. We were there for an executive seminar, many of us in the lounge watching the events of 9-11 unfold on television, and most of us on the phone. The course cleared rather quickly that morning . . . that’s where I was when it happened.

Some of the greatest conversations I have had with peers happened at the fire college –some of those peers are no longer here in body but I have great memories of times together. Not all the conversations were about work, and on many a night we solved all the problems of the world over a few beers.

There was just something special about the place that I can’t get out of my system. I guess, for me, it was like going on a mini holiday, knowing that a lot of the people there were there for the right reasons and I knew I was with those who had the same love and passion for the job as I did. We are spending a lot of time and resources trying to train the people who will run our departments some day, and a vital part of doing that is heritage and tradition. So, even though I understand the advance of technology and I appreciate that it is the way to go, I would caution all of us who took the courses and shared the experiences not to forget about where we came from and why we went. We need to make sure that those behind us have the same opportunities to enjoy the types of experiences that we did and, hopefully, they will develop the same types of relationships that we enjoy. It’s really hard to know where you’re going if don’t know where you came from. Just some thoughts from an old dog . . .

Trent Elyea is the fire chief in Collingwood, Ont. He started as a volunteer firefighter in Collingwood in 1982, moved to Clarington, Ont., where he was promoted to captain, then became deputy chief, and chief, in Orillia before moving back to Collingwood. He is a certified fire and explosive investigator, a Level 3 certified municipal manager, fire-service executive, and the community emergency management co-ordinator. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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