Fire Fighting in Canada

Trainer’s Corner: September 2019

Firefighters must learn to think for themselves

August 21, 2019 
By Ed Brouwer

There are times when a firefighter needs to step back, observe and learn how fire behaves. Photo: AdobeStock

I really appreciate Firefighting In Canada for giving me the opportunity to write this column. I’m sure I have worn out a few editors over these past two decades. My 30-year career has always been in volunteer/paid-on-call departments, serving as a combination of structural and wildland firefighter. My columns are usually based on discoveries I’ve made while fire fighting in these two roles or from my role as training officer. It is amazing how much one learns when having to prepare lessons for his/her peers. As a training officer, I have discovered one of the best ways to learn is to teach – even if it’s teaching what you yourself have just learnt.

With that in mind, if one of your members shows an interest in teaching, encourage them. Give them opportunities to research and instruct, or let them help you by doing a three-to-five-minute wrap-up of your lesson on practice night. This has proven to be very effective.

One thing I have going for me is that I’m old, and that means I have had more time to make mistakes than most of you. You should take advantage of that fact because we really don’t have enough time to make them all ourselves.

When my grandkids ask how I got so wise, I quote Will Rodgers who said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”


I have always tried to encourage volunteer training officers because I know first-hand how difficult that role can be. Sometimes being a training officer is more than just difficult. It can be downright exasperating at times.

Week after week, month after month, year after year, we bring top-quality lessons to our members and yet it seems many firefighters don’t know how to think for themselves. There seems to be a disturbing (exasperating) disconnect between what they were taught and what they actually “think” about while fighting a fire.

They are great at obeying orders, but they do not truly understand fire behaviour. They can drop a hydrant lay, raise a ladder, set up ventilation fans, etc., with great proficiency. However, ask them why they are doing a particular task and you may be surprised at their inability to give you a reasonable response. There is more to fire fighting than just putting wet stuff on red stuff.

I have placed my hand on the shoulder of a firefighter who was applying a hose stream to a burning building and asked, “What are you doing?” The usual response is a defensive, “Just what you told me to do.” I then ask, “What would happen if you stopped?” They reply sheepishly, “I don’t know? Do you want me to stop?” I say, “No brother, I just want to know if you know what will happen if you were to stop applying water to the fire at this point?” Some have no answer at all, and if they have no answer, how do they know that what they are doing is effective?

Most firefighters get flustered in this scenario because in their mind you, their training officer or the IC, is supposed to do the thinking for them. They are to put the wet stuff on the red stuff, but they sadly don’t understand the corresponding results of their actions. The fact that fire is always changing means you cannot be static in your thinking and you should take corresponding actions in your suppression tactics.

For example, if you have been applying water to where you are guessing the fire is long enough that you are now standing in six inches of water, at least see if the water is warm and dirty. If it is cold and clean, it is likely it hasn’t absorbed any heat or reached any fire. And that means you are doing nothing but wasting resources.

If you are applying a hose stream to where you think the fire is but you do not see any change in the smoke, there is a high probability you are missing your target. There is a 36-second video at that shows this point very clearly. It has been dubbed Stupid Firefighter. Good thing this individual was wearing a BA mask.

Understanding fire behaviour requires knowledge of physical and chemical processes of fire. Of course, we cover the Fire Triangle: Fuel, Oxygen, Heat, the three basic factors required for combustion. And, we touch on the chemical chain reactions that keeps fire burning. But although this shows what is required for combustion, it does not show how fire behaves.

There are times in your fire attack when you need to stop what you are doing and take a moment to observe what is happening on the fire ground. There are times, especially in wildland fire suppression, when you need to shut down the hose and let the fire breathe.

Every rookie will be taught the physical states of matter in which fuels are found, the methods of heat transfer, flash point, flame point and ignition temperature as they relate to liquid fuel fires, the relationship of vapour density and flammability limits to gas fuel fires, and Class A, B, C, D and K fires. They will be taught the phases of fire, backdraft, rollover and flashover and the principles of thermal layering.

But these are all just parts of the bigger picture, the goal of our training being the understanding of fire behaviour (the way fire acts). The understanding of fire behaviour is the basis for all fire fighting principles and actions. This is way beyond just following an order to apply water to flame.

I often ask myself: Have I inspired my firefighter students to think for themselves or are they just mimicking others? Do they know why they perform suppression tactics or are they simply following orders? Have I established a healthy rapport with my students that frees them to tell me that they don’t know why they are performing certain suppression tactics? Have I encouraged them to be lifelong students of fire behaviour?

Until next time, stay safe and please remember to train like lives depend on it because they most certainly do.

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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