Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Features
Between Alarms: Getting hired and getting ahead

March 31, 2021
By Arjuna George

Are you looking at acing your next promotional exam or landing your dream job as a firefighter? If so, then this edition’s column is for you. The tips that I will share here come from personal experience and some inspiration from bestselling author Jim Kwik’s new book Limitless. Kwik is an amazing brain coach and he offers some excellent tips to enhance your ability to ace tests and get the most out of your brain. Kwik notes in his book that “humans forget approximately 50 percent of what they learn within an hour, and an average of 70 percent within 24 hours.” But with a little effort, there are ways we can improve.

Joining the fire service can have a very steep learning curve. To optimize your eligibility and success you need to start learning how to learn.

Firstly, start on the right foot. Our brains are about 80 per cent water. It’s critical to keep your brain in exceptional shape with proper hydration, nutrients and sleep to reach your potential learning power.

The sheer volume of learning that is required to be a proficient firefighter is astounding. Fire service training manuals are massive and the expectation is that we will read it, sometimes only once, and then remember it forever.

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Kwik has a great for tip for trying to remember all the facts with a system he calls active recalling. To really ace your next entry or promotional exam try this more active style of recalling that is more effective than simply reading the material. Active recalling can be writing the most important information on recipe cards, using digital flash cards on your phone to quiz yourself or even handwritten notes and drawings. Any of these tools will help you solidify the information into your memory with no cues needed. Flash cards are my favorite tool to improve my recall because they are small, portable and something I can skim through every day. The secret is to then test yourself. Quiz your brain so that it is not relying on visual cues to ensure it is in fact now part of your memory.

Neuroscience has shown that shorter spaced out study sessions can be more effective in turning short term memory into long term memory. Kwik calls this spaced repetition. He suggests to “start by reviewing your notes an hour later, then a day later, a week later, and a few weeks later.” There is a very well-known time management technique called the Pomodoro Technique and using its simple process will greatly enhance your focus and retention. The basic approach of the Pomodoro Technique is to first decide on one task and then set a timer to 25 minutes. After the focused 25 minutes, take a quick five minute stretch break doing something you love and that energizes you. Then go back into deep learning for another 25 minutes. If the study period goes longer than a few Pomodoros, increase your break times to allow for more recharging time and a few minutes for breathing exercises. Kwik says that “as your body moves, your brain grooves.” I am a huge fan of breaking down information into small digestible sizes and the Pomodoro Technique creates this by narrowing things down into small one-task time slots. The key reason for taking breaks in learning is to take full advantage of the memory principles of primacy and recency. Primacy means that we tend to remember the very first thing we learned and recency says that we also remember those at the tail end. If we keep primacy and recency in mind, and perform shorter spaced repetition study sessions, we will recall more of the firsts and the lasts of each session. Study for eight hours straight, and you may only recall the very first chapter and what you finished with. If you break up that eight hours into short 25 minute sessions, you will get 10 time more of your recall through more primacy and recency points.

Eliminating distractions is critical to maintaining focus and clarity. Turn off your notifications on your laptop or mobile device so you don’t get social media pop-ups, email notifications, nothing while you are in your study burst. An effective way to ensure this happens is to go on airplane mode or turn off your Wi-Fi. Another unique tip is to create a second user on your computer that has nothing installed on it except what you need to study. This reduces the temptation to check your email or social media one last time. Multitasking is not an effective way to learn. Focus on just one job one task at a time.

Audiobooks are another great option. You can listen to the audiobook lesson while taking notes, drawing diagrams or mind mapping. By doing both activities your memory of the subject will strengthen greatly.

One of the most powerful learning tactics is to teach the subject to someone else. By teaching you are learning the information twice, and you tend to dive deeper into the subject in case you are asked a challenging question from a student.

One last nugget is to find ways to reduce your personal stress or your test anxiety.Chronic stress has been proven to have numerous adverse health effects, of which the executive functioning of the brain has not been spared. 

Keep in mind that hiring and promotions come down to more than just high marks. It really comes down to: Are you a good fit for the culture and organization, brining passion, integrity, character, and a willingness to be coached?  Together with high test scores and high emotional intelligence you are destined to succeed in the fire service.  


Arjuna George is the fire chief for Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at ageorge@saltspringfire.com.