Canadian Firefighter Magazine

From the Floor: July 2014

Jay Shaw   

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Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” If this is so, does it not mean that education is a firefighter’s best tool for saving lives and property – more powerful than a Cummings diesel engine, stronger than a set of jaws, and reaching further than any search light or master stream?

I’ve heard many firefighters from west coast to east wax philosophically about book smarts and street smarts and years of experience versus certificates, diplomas, and degrees. Yet if we take the fire service out of the picture and just ask a general question about success, opportunity, and a chance in life, most firefighters will recognize the importance of education to those goals. Ask the guys and gals in the hall the best way for their own kids to guarantee – as much as there is one in life – a future that has promise, fulfillment and an opportunity to succeed and move ahead in the world; that’s right, they will all say more education.

We all seem to agree that education is the golden ticket into the chocolate factory. Funny how education is the key for everyone else, but not just for us hosers! Our culture and belief systems are changing at a snail’s pace. However, we still have a major attitude problem in the fire service toward higher education.

No one is saying that firefighters’ years of service, seniority, and experience are not worth anything. In fact, I routinely watch and learn from guys with five, 10, or 15 more years than me on the job, but that does not take away from the fact that years of service do not equate to experience, as the latter is a subjective term, and both measurements are poor indicators of one’s ability to do the job. The best balance is a combination of training, years of experience and education in the form of formal degrees, diplomas, and professional


The reason I am so pro education is because there is a big difference between education and training, and how both are applied to our work. Training is what we do to learn or practise a task such as a search, or using a command board, or a PPV fan. Education is the formation of critical-thinking skills in areas of expertise in which you already have training. When you combine this type of education with several years of experience, the result is enlightenment to the point at which critical-thinking skills can be applied to form new ideas, opinions and methods that are clear, concise and on target. Training is clearer when you can process the information being taught from several viewpoints; this allows you to better understand the details and the reasoning behind them. A great example of this type of learning is when probationary or new firefighters are given their first taste of fire fighting in the burn tower. Before that training takes place, the firefighters must learn the dynamics and chemistry of fire. Having that foundational education allows them to understand why they need to get their butts down to the ground when the thermal layer flips and the steam comes down on everyone. But we never seem to go back to those foundations, or push our education to the next level of higher understanding.

You can give a man a fish – which equates to ordering someone to do a task without understanding why or comprehending the methodology – or you can train him how to catch one himself. This, of course, would involve showing the rookies the videos and training to understand how and why fire will reach a certain temperature and then flash over. But if you also educate firefighters about the reasons why and how the fire started in the first place, they will then start to see past the end of the hoseline and understand critical concepts such as the relationships between fire-suppression and fire-prevention activities. This kind of teaching results is higher education; we are not doing this consistently in our fire halls.

We’ve all heard the fish story, but we’ve forgotten the third and most crucial part: if you don’t educate the fisherman about the importance of conservation, fish species, water pollution, and spawning grounds, you will eventually have a bigger problem.

I believe that in the near future firefighters will be required to embrace advanced education that those who desire to learn and see beyond the end of that hose will have more opportunity to advance than those who choose to not observe and understand the fire chemistry through the flames. Bettering yourself through higher education should not be threatening to others. No one makes our income levels in other industries anymore without some sort of higher education. Some departments, including mine, have started programs to allow their members to access certain university programs. It’s time to get on the bandwagon, or at least figure out why there are no fish left in your sea. 

Jay Shaw is a firefighter and primary care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg. Along with multiple fire and emergency-services courses and certificates, Jay holds a master’s degree in disaster and emergency management from Royal Roads University and is an independent education and training consultant focusing on leadership, management, emergency preparedness and communication skills. Contact him at and follow him on twitter @disasterbucket

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