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Trainer’s Corner: A word of encouragement

August 24, 2023 
By Ed Brouwer

There have been two types of influencers through three decades of  my fire fighting life: encouragers and discouragers. To encourage is to give support, confidence, or hope to someone. It means to instill courage in another. Discouragement instills a loss of confidence or enthusiasm. Unfortunately, we seem to be more familiar with this word.  

Do you remember the first time you walked into the fire hall? I was so excited at the thought of being a volunteer firefighter but I also had a lot of anxiety of what it would mean for me and my family. I remember looking at the members sitting around the table as I attended my first information meeting, me with my long hair, a full beard, and a belly full of butterflies.

That first night I met a discourager, unfortunately of a high rank. Over the next year I observed him treat all of us recruits with disdain. It was as if he was working hard at making us look foolish, putting us on the spot and mocking us when we failed at something. I wasn’t some young kid who couldn’t handle this guy. I was 37-years-old with plenty of life experience behind me and I believed that even bad experiences can be learning experiences. Some of the younger recruits didn’t fair so well. 

Thankfully, that first night I also met an encourager — several of them in fact. One of them I will never forget. He had a huge impact on my life. Deputy Chief Brian Morris became my mentor, dear friend and the reason I stuck it out through that first year. He later became the chief and appointed me training officer.


Over the next 12 years we completely rebuilt the fire department. We doubled the size of our response area, built a second fire hall and extended the old hall with a new bay and large office/training area. Our department went from one old engine and one tender to three engines, two tenders and a rescue truck. In addition to structural protection, we added urban wildfire suppression, highway rescue, and first response medical to our service delivery. Our calls went from six per year to over 80.  

Chief Morris encouraged me every step of the way, and when I hesitated, doubting my ability he and others would say, “you got this.”  Think about the power in those words.

As our department grew, so did my responsibilities. In addition to setting up training for our own crew, I set up forestry seminars for all area FDs. We conducted extrication training weekly in addition to our regular practices. Chief Morris then appointed me to deputy chief training officer. The merry band of encouragers in our volunteer department made sure I was able to attend all the outside training seminars that we had available in B.C.

The power of encouragement should not be overlooked when it comes to your training program. It is of paramount importance you remember the greatest asset in your department is your members. If you want to keep your members engaged and excited to attend practices, get them to love what they get to do. Get them to love, not dread, both new training and training reviews.   

New recruits need to feel engaged. They need to feel like they are a part of the team, and not the team of recruits or newbies, but rather part of the department team. They need to feel they are valued right from the start!    

The worse thing you can do is to leave your newbies feeling new and ignored. When my family moved to a new community, I joined the local volunteer fire department. I was considered a newbie (although I had my 1001 and 13 years of experience). I had no real problem with that except I found their training program to be very haphazard. It was discouraging that their rookie training was a two-year program.Be aware that when that newbie comes into the hall, you are expecting them to step into a culture that has probably been established for some time.  With that in mind, let’s look at a few ideas that could be adopted into your training (if they aren’t already) to make sure your new recruits don’t disappear on you. 

The key word here is engagement. Start engaging new recruits immediately from their first day, both looking the part and feeling the part. I know some departments have newbies wearing different colour helmets. That is okay, and perhaps necessary, especially if you allow newbies to attend calls. But I have always trained newbies in the same room and in the same time frame as veteran members. It is important to get to know each other as team, and the veterans could use the review. Be on the lookout for discouragers and if you find one speak to them in private. If it continues, call them out publicly. If they complain too much make them wash the truck. Don’t allow them to stand on the sidelines making negative comments.   

I was asked to do some rookie training at a department and was glad to help. During the first session I called the whole department down to their truck bay. Each member stood in their civilian clothes with their PPE gear set on the floor beside them. I instructed, “at the sound of the whistle put your gear on. When you are done raise your hands.” I warned them if it isn’t done within a certain time frame, they will all be doing it again. Before they could complain, I blew the whistle. I pretended to look at my watch, but I was watching the firefighters.

What I was looking for was for one of the veteran firefighters to be helping a newbie (we are a team, right?). I saw four or five firefighters raise their hands. I blew the whistle and said, “time… take off your gear. We are going again.” On the fourth time I finally saw a firefighter reach over and help the guy next to him who was struggling with his helmet flap. I blew the whistle and was met with an audible groan…someone said, “again?” I cheerfully said, “No, you did great”. I explained that it really wasn’t about the speed of donning their PPE, but rather whether a senior firefighter would engage with a newbie. On the fire ground you want to know your partner has your back.   

It has been 30 years since I responded to an MVI near Big White ski hill. It was my first entrapment situation. I was struggling with hooking up the hydraulic lines for the Jaws. I felt multiple eyes on me from the bystanders. My brain had a fog rolling through. I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder and a gentle voice said, “you got this, Ed.” And suddenly I did; the coupling opened and the Jaws came to life. I looked up and saw Jarret Dais, a full-time firefighter from Kelowna (he and some other firefighters had been skiing). He didn’t take over or make me feel inferior because I was just a volunteer. He encouraged me. I’ve never forgotten those powerful words: You got this, Ed.

Ask new recruits on a regular basis about how are they settling in and what are they finding easy or difficult. This can be a quick, ‘how are you doing?’, but whatever you do, be sure to be present when they give you feedback.

Make sure your newbies know about any training sessions or online courses they could take. This will go a long way to warding off discouragement. Sometimes a simple smile with a “good job”, or a hand on the shoulder, is enough. You can have the best training program in the world and the best fire apparatus in the world, but if you don’t have the hearts and minds of your members, none of it comes to life.

Recognition of a job well done brings much to your training program. Don’t be giving false plaudits and don’t you dare give awards for just “showing up. Just let your members know that you value what they do. 

If other officers are involved in your practice nights get them to watch and learn what your new recruits are good at.  Note what they are enthusiastic about, then begin to develop and encourage those skills.

  • Do your members know that they are valued?
  • Do your members know what is expected of them?
  • Do you and your officers know what is expected of them?

Encouraging new recruits right from the start is the key to a department where all members, newbies and veterans alike, feel valued and part of a team.  

I’ve spoken a lot about encouraging the newbies, let me close by encouraging you. You, the training officer, are not in this alone. If you are struggling to find the time to put together a proper and challenging practice night, reach out. Good practice nights don’t just happen, it’s a lot of work. It takes an average of four hours prep to make a half hour of a good training session. As a volunteer training officer, you are trying to find those hours while dealing with family, earning a living, and all kinds of life events. Sure, every once in a while you can have a “truck check”, but too many of those will discourage everyone, you included. If you need or would like help, drop me a line and we will see if we can help you. 

Until next issue, remember to train like lives depend on it because it does.  4-9-4   Ed Brouwer

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., retired deputy chief training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue, a fire warden, wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor and ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact 

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