Canadian Firefighter Magazine

20 years of training: Innovations and lessons from a B.C. Wildfire instructor

By Jared Dodds   

Features Training Week BC Canada wildfires canadian firefighter firefighter firefighter training training wildfire

Photo: Brad Major

Recently, Jared Dodds, associate editor of Canadian Firefighter, sat down with Brad Major, a firefighter and wildfire training instructor in British Columbia, to talk about how training has changed over the years and where it might be headed next.

Q: How long have you been with the fire service? How did you become an instructor for B.C. Wildfire?

Brad Major: I was hired by the Burnaby Fire Department in 2004, and previously, I was a British Columbia wildland firefighter, where I was hired in 1997. So, I did eight years as a wildland firefighter before getting on the Burnaby fire department.

As a wildland firefighter, I gained enough experience to qualify me as an instructor. The course I am certified to teach is the S100 Basic Fire Suppression and Safety, which is a two-day course. The first day is spent in the classroom, and the second day is spent in the field.

Completing the course would allow a potential firefighter to work the fire line in British Columbia.

Q: In the 20 years you have been a trainer, what were the major innovations or changes you have seen in training?

Brad Major: While the content hasn’t changed much, the thing that is different how focused and urgent our messaging on safety has become. In the last 20 years, we have started to see erratic weather patterns that we’re not really used to.

So, a big part of the course is the safety content, and it’s really becoming imperative that people understand the safety side of things to make sure they go home at the end of the day.

Q: Have changes in technology or technique had a bigger impact on safety training and content?

Brad Major: Technology is advancing. Many things have changed over time regarding the way fires are monitored, reported, and recorded. Things like using infrared cameras and heat detection have been introduced as well.

But when it comes down to the basic technique, that hasn’t changed. There are advancements in the pump systems that are constantly occurring, but we teach the same pump that was used in 2004 because it’s the core pump in British Columbia and it still works as it should. The fundamental safety stuff, like knowing what your escape routes are and what your safety zones are, that is still the same.

Q: What is a new technology you’ve seen introduced in the last year that is making a big difference in wildland firefighting?

Brad Major: I’m a neighbour of Whistler, B.C., and they have a fire detection program using a system of cameras which is proving to be valuable. The detection program influences their strategy and helps determine where the department should be putting in more pre-fire planning efforts. The goal is to mitigate the risk of fire in the first place, and you need the early detection system to be the start of that planned response.

Q: Outside of emphasis on safety, what have been one or two innovations that you have seen in wildfire training in the last two years?

Brad Major: I think the biggest innovation is that the different fire services are working together. Innovating communications, introducing unified radio systems between the organizations, increasing planning amongst all emergency services, and overall working together to train more effectively.

Some of the public facing programs have also improved quite a bit. The first is the fuel modification FireSmart program. The way that has been implemented is super valuable. More community interface fires are happening and it’s very relevant and important to prepare for them.

It can be a very dangerous situation if you’re complacent, not paying attention, or not communicating well.

The second is the use of sprinklers and sprinkler systems on properties as a passive firefighting tool. The combination of the fuel modification program through FireSmart and the sprinkler protection program has been really successful, and that community collaboration is where things will be heading here in the future.

Q: What is something unique about the training that you are providing in B.C. that you would like to pass on to trainers around the country?

Brad Major: One of the things that’s working really well is the collaboration between structural fire and wildland fire. British Columbia has a very active program to get those people together and it has proven successful.

The provincial government has stepped in because the structural fire department component is made up of municipal resources. So, they’ve brought them in for large-scale training programs, where they get together to discuss scenarios and plans they’re going to implement.

You look at a situation like West Kelowna, where there was a fast-moving, dangerous fire. People lost many houses in that fire, but no firefighters were hurt. Just one example of wildland and structural fire components coming together.

Q: What do you see as the next key shift in training? Where do you see things moving next?

Brad Major: The programs are expanding, the sprinkler programs are expanding, the equipment is growing, pumps are getting more high-tech and powerful, trucks and water delivery, everything is ramping up as far as the technology and equipment.

There is a lot of room for error out there. Just make sure that you do follow what you’ve been taught, and that will get you home.

Then you look at the pre-fire planning, which is experiencing a major shift and involves firefighters even further in the future. Fire fighting isn’t just putting water on fire; you can get into those communities, and it’s proven to work. Doing the fuel modification stuff is quite similar to fire fighting as far as forestry goes, so we need to train more people and get more people on the ground doing the work. It will result in better outcomes for everyone.

Q: What lessons have you learned from your experience in B.C. would you like to share with the rest of the country?

Brad Major: My biggest message is to listen to the training, understand it, and then follow it when you’re on the fire line. That will get you home at the end of the day.

It can be a very dangerous situation if you’re complacent, not paying attention, or not communicating well. There is a lot of room for error out there. Just make sure that you do follow what you’ve been taught, and that will get you home.

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