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Trainer’s Corner: The lessons you don’t expect

February 16, 2022
By Ed Brouwer

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During my three decades of instructing in the fire service, I have gravitated towards hands on training.  My go-to methods are: drills (the way things are done), scenarios (a description of what could possibly happen), and perhaps my favourite method, evolutions (the development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form).

Evolutions have an added bonus in that they often develop in ways that reveal your department’s weak areas. I’m sure you will agree, it is far better to deal with those weakness at a practice than during the real thing. Be careful not to over-plan your evolution; let it play out. Ignoring this key point can derail your training objective. Use the KISS principle (KISS is an acronym for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ and is a design system that emerged from the U.S. Navy in the 1960s). Or, as they say, less is more. 

I could tell you that every evolution I planned went off without a hitch, but you all know I’d be lying.  

In fact, I still have nightmares about some practice nights. One such night was an MVI evolution in which I had hoped to have the members rescue a patient trapped in a car via extrication. The objective was simple enough.  

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A local auto wrecker dropped off two wrecked vehicles for us to use.  I had him place them on an old (little used) logging road just off the main highway. Once he left, I placed our ‘Rescue Randy’ dummy into the front seat of one vehicle. Then, using the forklifts on my tractor, I rolled the other vehicle upside down onto the roof of the first vehicle.  Everything looked good, stable, and most importantly safe.  Then, at the appropriate time, I paged out our members.

I knew it would take about 15 minutes for them to gear up and find the location. A strange thing happened while standing there waiting. I got bored, and that allowed for one of those, “hey, hold my beer” moments (yes, even non-drinkers can have those moments). I thought (well, the thinking is debatable now looking back) it would add to the realism if smoke was coming from one of the vehicles.  So, when I found a couple of road flares in my truck, I naturally lit them and threw them in the trunk of the first vehicle.  Awesome, little wisps of white smoke were coming up through the car. Problem was,  the department reacted a lot slower than I had anticipated…. and the flares? Well, the flares ignited the junk in the trunk a lot faster than I had anticipated.   

As the white wisps turned into a large plume of black smoke, two thoughts crossed my mind after my initial thought of, “Oh crap!” The first was that the responders should have no trouble finding us now, followed by, I guess we are now having a vehicle fire evolution.  

I have learnt that there is no avoiding the worse case scenario. When, not if, it happens, you’ve got to just roll with it.  

One of our local fire chiefs had somewhat the same problem when the fledgling volunteer department was given an old, abandoned house to burn.  On practice night, without any of the department’s knowledge, he poured way too much fuel all over the two-story wooden structure. Just before lighting it, he paged out his department to a possible structure fire. The hall was eight kilometers away, and the members had gathered for practice night. Trouble began when they thought it was a real call out, there was much excitement and some confusion as to who was going to drive which apparatus.  And of course, the chief wasn’t there to make those decisions for them. By the time they finally arrived on scene, the chief was furious. As in my evolution, his department arrived a lot slower than anticipated, and the fire developed a lot faster than anticipated.  When the department finally arrived, they found the chief standing next to the foundation of what had been a structure. Both were smouldering.   

I’m sure many of you will agree with the statement, “Experience is the best teacher.” Good or bad, we learn from them. One of my rancher friends says, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly results of a training evolution have lessons for us that cannot be taught from book learning. One evolution at my last department left an impact on everyone; an impact that I could never have expected or cultivated through a PowerPoint presentation, no matter how slick.   

It was an evolution that involved the whole department responding to four different emergency calls.  The first three were deliberately designed to be “non-issue” (nuisance) calls. The first three were at extreme ends of the city. All three required little, if any, attention. The department fell into the trap of our routine ‘area familiarization’ training mindset.  However, I had the fourth call be a possible hazmat incident.  The evolution was handled well by Engine 1, which parked safely back away from the hazard and the crew got binoculars out to see what they were dealing with. However, Engine 2, with lights flashing drove right into the toxic spill scenario.  As firefighters left the apparatus, I yelled, “Drop! You are down!” I made them drop right where they were. The driver was told to slump over the steering wheel, his window was open and in direct line with the smoke and spill clearly marked three meters away. The IC was down at his open door and three firefighters not wearing BA lay unresponsive on the pavement.  

A strange quiet fell over the street. It was eerie with the flashing strobes, the dark of night like a mist over the entire scene, and the unresponsive firefighters on the pavement.  

I let it play out for just a moment longer then called a wrap. We had a really good debriefing. But that lesson stayed with them a long time. Like I said earlier, I’d rather have mistakes happen at a practice than in real life.   

I am grateful for those evolutions that bring about unexpected results.  

I was asked to do training session on ventilation for one of our local departments. Once the theory part of ventilation was completed, I had the firefighters don their PPE. Using their firehall as the building to be ventilated, I had them set up their PPV fan at one of the main doors. At this point, all the doors and windows were closed. While they did that, I hung up my flagging tape props in the building at various doors and windows. Their hall has an upper floor, so I placed flagging tape on an interior door to a room with an openable window (in our case the window had a screen). This turned out to be a huge bonus.   Remember that at this point all the doors and windows are closed.  

I returned to the firefighters outside at the main door. I had them fire up the fan forcing air on the entry door, checking to make sure they had a proper cone effect. Then we entered the building, and they were surprised that although the air was being forced into the building, there was very little if any air flow.  

The building was just being pressurized. Taking them to the first set of flagging tape, they noted there was little if any movement. I asked one of the firefighters to open the door. As the door opened, they felt a sudden rush of air that caused the flagging tape to flutter in a horizontal motion out the exit door.

They started to understand that in order for mechanical ventilation to be effective there must be an inlet and an outlet. After closing that door, we went to an interior. At the second door the flagging tape was hanging without movement. We opened that door and stepped into the room.  I asked, “Do you sense any air flow?” They answered, “No.” I had one of the firefighters open the slider on the window, and the streamers I had hung on the door began waving in the direction of the open window. I had the firefighter close the slider halfway and they noticed a marked reduction in air movement. Then I had the firefighter once again open the slider fully, then remove the screen. The difference in airflow was so drastic the firefighters were shocked. It was at that point the class collectively “got it” and their knee jerk reaction was to applaud. For this old trainer, it doesn’t get much better than to witness that type of instructional engagement.  

Hope these examples have given you some, “hands-on” ideas. I would love to hear about your training experiences, “The Good, Bad or Ugly”.  I am hoping to share some of your “Best and Worst” training ideas with our readers. Send me a message at aka-opa@hotmail.com 

Until next time 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 aka-opa@hotmail.com. 


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