Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: Teaching not only what went right, but what went wrong

June 7, 2021
By Ed Brouwer
What went right and what went wrong? Taking the time to go over an exam one-on-one with a firefighter trainee builds trust and improves learning. Photo credit: smolaw11/Adobe Stock

In this edition of Trainer’s Corner, I’d like to share an exercise that may prove valuable for you and your crew.  

For this exercise, you will need a roof ladder with adjustable hooks (a picture of one will do if you don’t have access to one), a flip board (or large pieces of paper), a marker, paper and pens or pencils for each member.  

Set the ladder up against a wall or lay it on the ground, whichever works for you. Ask your members to take a good look at the ladder. Then, instruct your members they have five minutes to quickly come up with 10 things you can do with that ladder. Have them write down any applications they can think of using the paper and writing tools supplied. They should not share their thoughts or converse with others in the group. 

Try not to give any hints as to possible suggestions. Let each firefighter figure it out for themselves.  

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For your information, there are more things you can do with a roof ladder than climb up or down. We have used roof ladders with tarps in salvage and overhaul, for negative ventilation fan support, and the rescuing of a downed firefighter through a narrow opening, just to name a few. 

Note: This really isn’t about the ladder as much as it is about getting your members to think outside-the-box.    

When the time is up, call the group together to do some brainstorming. Give a marker to anyone in the group and ask them to write one idea on the flip chart. When they have successfully written out one suggestion, ask them to explain their answer.

When they are finished, instruct them to give the marker to someone else in the group. That person then does the same thing, writing down their suggestion and explaining their answer.  

No duplicate answers are allowed unless the person answering can give a different reason for the duplicate answer. Continue through the whole group until you have exhausted all possible responses.  

The objective of this simple lesson is to get your members to have an inductive moment, or as I refer to it, an “aha” moment. Hopefully, you will hear a few comments like, “I never thought of that,” when new ideas are presented. 

Wouldn’t it be something if your members actually recognized that they had something to contribute to your instructional conversations? Oh, if we would only listen.

At times, instructors are so bent on getting the lesson done that they  don’t allow time for their students to digest what they are learning. It seems we are on a mission to check the ‘boxes’.  

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever taken a course where the instructor tries to help you by telling you the material will be on the exam? The problem with that is, human nature being what it is (prone to laziness), we lock on to those 20 or so points that are “on the exam”, and do not really give our full attention to the whole subject matter.   

It seems it is all about passing this course to move on to the next. Before you think I’m exaggerating, think about how we mark exams. Most use an answer key. You simply lay the key over the student’s exam answer sheet. The coloured-in dots that match are marked correct, while those that don’t are marked wrong.

The students get their marks, but seldom (unless they ask) do they know which questions they got wrong. We have taught our students to ignore the 25 per cent they got wrong and focus only on the 75 per cent passing grade.  

My practice was to go over each exam individually. It took more time, but it produced some positive results. Sitting down with each firefighter trainee, I could show them the question they had trouble answering. Sometimes they would share how they read the question wrong or were confused as to which of the multiple-choice answers were “most right” (you must admit, some multiple-choice answers leave a lot to be desired). The key here was that showing them the question they got wrong opened an opportunity for dialogue. It also showed the trainee that I, as an instructor, thought of them to be important enough to spend time with. I guess I was a pain for my teachers, but I considered it important to know what I got wrong.    

As a side note, while I was marking exams using answer keys, I found multiple mistakes. That means if the person marking is just looking for a filled-in circle rather than actually reading the question and answer, it is possible to mark correct answers as wrong.  

Too often we get exactly what we ask for. If all you expect from your students is to check the box, you will end up with firefighters that do not know enough of the subject to make logical decisions when it matters most.  

The firefighter instruction course is made up of more than a dozen subjects, everything from orientation to survival. Each of these subjects are made up of multiple core skills. Take your time instructing each core skill. Firefighter training is not a race, it’s more like a marathon.     

One final point: If your members have come to know that you are willing to meet with them one-on-one to discuss training matters, they will also trust you with their ideas or suggestions. That, my friend, is a much bigger deal than it sounds. In fact, that confidence that you build in the trainee, considering the hour in which we live, could become a life saver. Many first responders are struggling under the mental impact of this pandemic. Unfortunately, not all of them have someone to talk to about it.  

We are just now beginning to see the mental impact of COVID-19. It is speculated that the impact of this pandemic could claim more lives than the virus itself. Even as I write this in B.C. in May, our province is going into yet another lockdown and enforcing travel restrictions that allow essential travel only. Many first responders are not just reaching their limits, they have blown past them. The true impact of all of this will not be seen until the pandemic ends. However, if we wait until then to do something, it’ll be too late.

I am humbled by this opportunity to contribute nationally to the Canadian fire services through my Trainer’s Corner column, which has been publishing for 20 years now. Know that I also wear my chaplain’s hat during these unprecedented times and pray for all our first responders. 

Stay safe out there, and as always remember to train like lives depend on it, because they do.


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 Ed at aka-opa@hotmail.com.


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