After 31 years of fire fighting, one would think I would embrace my retirement. Yeah — not so much. I miss putting together Wednesday night practice sessions. I miss using my imagination to present fire fighting core skills to the newbies in a way that they will not only be able to do it but understand the ‘why’ behind it. For sure I miss the comradery, but when you are in a paid-on-call department you don’t get to know each other as well as you do in a full-time station.
It is paramount that firefighters know why they are doing something as well as understanding the consequences of not doing something.
I remember approaching a firefighter spraying water on the outside of a burning structure. I asked him a simple question: “What are you doing?” He looked at me all nervous like and replied, “Am I doing something wrong?”
I shook my head. “No, I just want to know, what you are doing?” He replied, “I can do something different.” Again, I said, “No buddy, I just want to know, what you are doing?”
“I’m spraying water on the fire,” he stated, but since his statement was more in the form of a question I pushed a bit more. “Why are you spraying water on the fire?” Now he got flustered. “You told me to! Should I stop?”
I looked at him and tried rephrasing the original question in “textbook” terminology. “What effect are your present actions having upon the fire compartment?” He took a breath and said, “I don’t know.”
Good, an honest answer. My next question: “What would change if you stopped doing what you are doing?” Again, he responded with, “I don’t know.”
I wasn’t trying to mess with him. I was hoping to give him a better understanding of fire behaviour.
As he continued applying water, we spoke about the fire triangle. I asked him what part of the triangle he was operating in. Then I asked if he knew how effective he was being. He answered no, so I instructed him to radio the pump operator informing them he was shutting down his line. Then we just stood and watched what the fire was doing. We looked at the smoke and discussed the basic smoke indicators: location, colour, density and volume. You cannot observe smoke indicators if you are just “drowning” the fire. You need to take a break; let the fire breath.
It was a wonderful teaching moment. Looking him straight in the eyes I said, “I am sharing this with you for one reason.” He gave a knowing smile and said, “I know, you want me to be a good firefighter.”
“Yes that is true, but more than that I want you to go home after each and every call.”
My little story illustrates in part the three roles of the training officer: instructor, coach and mentor.
An instructor is one who teaches something. A coach helps bring greater performance in a specific area. A mentor is a bit different. Mentorship can involve training, but it is more like passing down knowledge of how things are done.
I read that the difference between a mentor and an instructor is that a mentor is more focused on the individual rather than their performance.
To mentor is to guide. A mentor is someone that can help another person solve a problem, but who will not attempt to solve it for them. Mentoring is mostly about counseling others that are following in our footsteps.
Throughout your years of service, you have overcome many obstacles. In the process you have obtained a great deal of information that cannot be found in a textbook or online. You need to share your experience and information in an informal way, helping others grow in order to one day take your role. You have the unique opportunity to positively affect the future by “growing” a replacement.
Looking back over multiple decades as a training officer, I wonder if I have left a “mark” or just a memory.
Volunteer departments often struggle with having a succession plan. And I believe that is where a mentorship program could really help. You should find a younger version of yourself and pass this information on to them. Do not just search for excellence, create it.
Many years ago, I heard a statement that has stuck with me: The way things are in an organization is the way we allow things to be in an organization.
If your department does not have a succession plan, create one. If it has a plan but it is not efficient, fix it. And if your department still appoints officers through the “let’s vote in our buddy” system call 911. Seriously. Positions should be posted with a clear understanding of what each role entails. Keep in mind, not every person is a leader in the making.
I believe in setting the bar high for upcoming fire officers. I have seen far too often a volunteer department crash and burn from within due to people who are a poor fit to be officers. Just because an officer is a good firefighter, does not qualify him as a good officer candidate. By now, you must have come to realize that less than 10 per cent of a firefighter’s time is actually spent on the fireground.
Be cautious when you hear applicants speak of “experience”. Is it 10 years of experience or 10 years of the same experience? Look for some one who recognizes what they do not know.
If this last year has taught us anything it is clear that our first responders are a priceless resource. That is why it is of the utmost importance we have good leadership.
By the time this goes to print, I will have celebrated my 68th birthday. I have enjoyed my journey thus far, evolving from newbie, to instructor, to coach, to mentor. It is my true belief that the role of training officer is the highest calling in the Canadian fire services. And although, what you spent years building may be destroyed overnight through no fault of your own, build anyway. Continue to give your firefighters your best efforts, and realize that maturity and experience are benefits, not disadvantages.
Your talent and dedication to the fire service are priceless resources. Please remember, “The best thing an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is how to become an old firefighter.”
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 email@example.com.
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