Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: Training for today

July 12, 2021
By Ed Brouwer


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For today’s training officer, maintaining current skill levels and developing new ones for your members during a worldwide pandemic has been, and may still be, a monumental task. Some of you have risen to the occasion by developing some “out-of-the-box” instructional methods.  It would be great to hear your ideas. Feedback regarding what did and didn’t work for you will be vital information for the year ahead, for I do not think we are quite out of the woods yet.

As a training officer you must be on the top of your game. To keep our members interested and engaged there is no room for doing things half right or half hearted.  Lives certainly hang in the balance, be it those who your members are rescuing or your members themselves. You cannot come to practice night unprepared. Victory loves preparation.

Here are a few nuggets to consider for your memory bank. I’ve read people remember only 20 per cent of what a good speaker says for up to 10 days as long as they hear no other “new” information.  However, if after 10 days they have not put that message into practice they forget it almost completely.   

During my years as a training officer, I reminded myself often of the following statement: “I hear — I forget, I see — I remember, I do — I understand!” I hope you can see the importance of this.  

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There is a new word being tossed around this last year: Zoom. Last week I was scheduled to be on one of these Zoom calls, but my computer wasn’t cooperating so I joined via my land line. It is an hour of my life I’ll never get back, and at my age that is a lot.  It didn’t help that the subject matter was as dry as Melba toast, but with no visuals and poor audio it was just plain awful. 

Love it or hate it: trainers using video conferencing need to be aware of the pros and cons from the perspective of you, the instructor, and your members, the students.

For some of us, our rural internet services are slow.  My grandkids laugh when the see my mouth moving and then seconds later the words come, and by that time they’ve asked another question.  

To be effective, video conferencing needs a lot of bandwidth.  Without it, the sound is in and out making it so that people are often asking each other to repeat themselves. 

And then of course there is the “learning curve” required for both the trainers and firefighters. In some cases, it is steep. I might be the only one in the whole Canadian fire services that doesn’t have a smartphone. Besides not being able to read the small font size, I type with one finger, using the hunt and peck method. I’d just as soon talk face to face. However, there are most certainly younger tech savvy people in your department who can set you up if you are inclined towards my sentiments. 

For me, a frustrating fact is the instructor cannot see the screens of their members (unless they share them with you), so you have no idea what they are doing. 

I have always pushed for group interaction, hoping for that all elusive “engagement”.  But without face-to-face contact, this becomes more of a challenge.   

Having said all that, I believe the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to video conferencing… but the key is you, the training officer. The success of our practice nights, no matter the instructional methods, rest squarely on the shoulders of the training officer. You must be prepared!  Your lesson plans must maximize student participation. 

Learning is defined as the ability to gain knowledge or information by means of understanding or by experience.  And a key for adult learners is relevance.  Knowing why they are doing a certain task will provide positive results on the fireground.  

There are certainly different styles of learners: 

  • I Hear-I Forget: Aural learners need to hear something so that it can be processed. They may prefer to read aloud if presented with written material. 
  • I See-I Remember: Visual learners are those who need to see simple, easy-to-process diagrams or text. 
  • I Do-I Understand: Print learners are those who process information by taking notes. Notes they may never look at again. Hands-on learners need to do something to learn it. Also in this “I Do” group are the interactive learners, who learn through discussion and those who learn through training exercises and role playing. 

I hope I don’t offend you with this, but as an instructor it does not matter what you know about fire fighting or learning types if you cannot the communicate that information to your members.  

Here are some methods of presenting information (in no particular order):

  • Lecture: Make sure your information is relevant, use interesting visual aids; have interactive questions.
  • Brainstorming: Post the question; record ideas and thoughts from the group; categorize the responses.
  • Buzz groups: Divide students into small groups; assign a task or problem to the groups; set a time limit; discuss each group’s findings. 
  • Case studies: Write a real-life story; pose questions that require solving; discuss responses.
  • Discussions: Create questions that support your teaching objectives and promote involvement from all members of the group. 

Another important key is learning to read your audience. Far too many trainers talk at their members, rather than talk to them, or better yet, talk with them. Try using the three Ds of skill instruction: demonstrate, describe and do.

An effective way to instruct is to silently demonstrate the core skill in front of your members. Then describe what you are doing step by step as you demonstrate it again. Then, and only then, have the members do it.

One more key:  Remember that you are dealing with adult learners. They may have just finished eight hours of hard work, wolfed down supper and are now more ready to sleep than learn. As well, consider that many of your students may have been out of the “school system” for 20 plus years. Expecting them to study and be excited about exams may be stretching it.  

Keep in mind these particular dos and don’ts. Do encourage your members with positive feedback. Do not belittle people or laugh at their questions or answers. Do not force people to take turns reading out loud (you better have more prepared than taking turns reading the training manual). I have found when asked to do this, most do not listen to what is being read as they are too busy reading their upcoming portion of text to ensure there are no big words they will stumble over.  

Study the lesson objectives. You must know the goals for the lesson. Remember, if you aim at nothing, you’ll be sure to hit it. The most effective training officer is a prepared one. Pandemic or not, preparation is the key to success!

Train like their lives depend on it because they do. Until next time, stay safe. 


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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