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Trainer’s Corner: November 2018

I’m sure many of you will agree that experience is the best teacher. Good or bad, we learn from our experiences. It might just be me, but I am seeing more and more white-haired firefighters in my first responder’s circle.  

October 23, 2018 
By Ed Brouwer

Fire hydrants can be covered with snow after a winter storm. Departments should routinely check to make sure that hydrants are easily accessible after severe storms. I’m sure many of you will agree that experience is the best teacher.

My concern rises regarding those trainers coming down the trail behind us.

Have we shared enough of our experiences?

Have we provided ample opportunities of experience during our practice sessions?

There is a huge difference between training others on book learning and fire ground experience. Good training officers don’t just happen along.


Our departments would be wise to have a succession program for all officers.  

There is a three-fold journey each successful training officer goes on. It is a journey that involves teaching, coaching and mentoring.

  • Teaching: Teachers help you build skill sets.
  • Coaching: Coaches boost confidence to improve your performance.
  • Mentoring: Mentors can show you the way because they’ve been there.  

Experience is the best teacher, and certainly involves far more than just fire-related skillsets. It teaches us about people – how they learn differently, how they interact differently, and how some can be a pain in the neck.  

Experience also teaches us that you will not always please everyone – and that some practices are talked about for weeks while others are forgotten on the drive home.

An old Danish proverb states, “Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is high.”

To be a successful trainer, you must always be learning, continually honing your skills.

Read firefighter training manuals, watch training videos, attend workshops and training conferences, think outside the box – but keep everything based on and framed in by NFPA 1001.

The other day, I had some work done on my F350. When I received my receipt, I noticed a note in the center of the page that read, “Thank you for your business. If we removed your wheels today, they have been torqued to manufacturer’s specs and should be re-torqued after 100 km.”

This, of course, is a “cover your butt” statement for the auto service. However, it is of paramount importance if there ever was an issue. It is the same with your training information. It must be based on and compliant with NFPA 1001.  

We are not asking you to reinvent the wheel. Work at being creative in your delivery and develop your own unique style.

During my three decades of fire service training, I have gravitated towards hands-on training, more so than just lecturing. My three go-to methods are:

  • Scenarios: A description of what could possibly happen.
  • Drills: The method and the way things are done.
  • Evolutions: The gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.

One thing I like about evolutions is that, in most cases, they develop in ways that bring out your weak or problem areas. And, it’s far better to deal with these at a practice than the real thing. Try not to over-plan your evolutions. Let them play out.  

The “bonus” that comes from evolutions is the natural occurrence of “pre-planning.” The approach of winter is a good time to put this into practice. Following is a collection of suggestions regarding cold-weather fire ground operations that have worked for other departments:

  • Apparatus maintenance is crucial. Make sure that tire chains or other traction devices are available for all first-in units.
  • Carry a supply of salt, sand or oil-dry to enhance footing and reduce the possibility of falls.
  • If hose lines are going into a long standby mode, partially open the control valves, as this will allow water to flow and prevent freezing.
  • During heavy snowfalls, apparatus may be forced to operate at a greater distance from the fire building. Extra lengths of attack line should be added to pre-connects to compensate for that additional stretch.
  • Ensure that extra turnout gear is available, especially gloves. It’s recommended that firefighters wear layered clothing.
  • Bunker boots and winter roof conditions can quickly add up to an accident. Some soles become hard in cold weather, while others can be worn smooth and really should be replaced. Both cases can prevent them from having good traction, especially on ice and slippery surfaces. Removable traction grips are available to fit bunker boots.
  • Fire hydrants near roadways can be covered with plowed snow. Departments should ensure hydrants are accessible after severe storms before they freeze by routinely checking on them and clearing snow from them. Attaching flags or another marking device that sticks up in the air can also make it easier to spot a snow-covered hydrant during the wintertime.
  • Small, handheld propane torches can help free frozen hydrant caps or hose couplings during cold weather.
  • A spray bottle full of antifreeze can help free frozen caps or couplings. During winter months, try spraying this on port cap threads to keep them from freezing ahead of time.
  • Vehicles that are mechanically marginal in good weather are almost guaranteed to fail when the weather turns cold, so get them checked out.
  • Severe cold will significantly reduce battery capacity. Check all batteries, hand-lights, PASS alarms and radios.
  • If you have tire chains, make sure everyone knows how to install them and how to drive with them once they’re on. If you use Insta-chains, make sure they engage and disengage properly. You should also check your tandem axle differential lock-ups, if you have them.
  • Some departments have found some success with plug-in, battery-trickle chargers and engine pre-heaters to help in those bitter-cold, start-and-go scenarios where heavy engine wear and poor performance can be a problem.
  • Winter’s cold can also cause problems with SCBA, foam concentrate and water fire extinguishers. When it’s bitter cold out there in the winter, consider moving some equipment to the heated cab, if room permits.

Finally, don’t forget to review the procedures for dealing with hypothermia and frostbite – not just for the public, but for your fellow firefighters.

Whether working in desert heat – or arctic cold, firefighter safety is paramount.

Remember, train like your life depends on it because it does.

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

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