Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Spontaneous Combustion: April 2010

By Tim Beebe   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

You,” I said, pointing my finger at a rookie firefighter, “Run a supply line from the portable pump to the pumper.”


You,” I said, pointing my finger at a rookie firefighter, “Run a supply line from the portable pump to the pumper.”
The rookie nodded and grabbed a couple of lengths of two-inch hose. It was a simple order, and no one had to tell him to hustle. Visions of the $20,000 sauna fire spreading to a $200,000 house were inspiration enough. A lake was close by and within minutes we would have an unlimited supply of water.

However, things don’t always go as planned, especially at night, under stress and with high stakes. The rookie connected the supply line to the discharge port of the pumper instead of the intake port (confound those Storz connections). Fortunately, I noticed the error, switched the line and averted a potentially spectacular line rupture.
Afterwards, the rookie assured me that he did know the difference between an intake and a discharge port. He had been trained but obviously not enough.

So, how do you know when it is enough?

Training is a race. Time is the opponent. Firefighters must cram a marathon of learning into a hundred-metre dash worth of time. In my department there is no such thing as enough training, except in the misty realm of my pie-in-the-sky daydreams. I need premium results in a handicapped time frame.


Each year, fire departments are expected to cram more paraphernalia into our already overflowing training bags. From bureaucrats to legal beagles, everyone has an opinion about what should be adopted, and, by default, what gets dumped. When the water hits the fire, we find out one of two things: we focused on either the right stuff, or the stuff that someone thought was right. Your crew may know the difference between bleach and ammonia but if they just raised a ladder upside down on the fireground, you have . . . well, you have a tidy cleaning cupboard and an upside down ladder.

All fire chiefs can hear the occupational health and safety bloodhounds baying in the distance, urging us to toe the training line. And we all know what happens if they catch up to us. It’s tempting to cover our tracks with the right piece of paper, the right words written on it and the right number of hours logged . . . all properly filed away like an insurance policy. But at the fire scene, that nice piece of paper isn’t worth its recycle value when the firefighter hooks a supply line to a discharge port. Ultimately, performance is the goal, not attendance at a course or hours on a training record. The paper trail may keep the hounds at bay for a while, but performance will silence them.

Performance is the ultimate proof of “enough” training. It is the fruit of a well-cultivated training program and there are barns full of strategies to bring in the harvest. All of them work well if the participants buy into the farm. None are effective if they perceive themselves as mere day labourers.

As a fire chief and an instructor, I know that words are like shooting stars. The majority don’t penetrate through the atmosphere of the firefighter’s mind. To get maximum value out of minimum opportunities the words must be captured by the gravitational force of the listener’s will. Dwight Eisenhower put it in a nutshell: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Knowledge must appeal to the palate of the mind or it will be rejected. Try giving your kids a choice between turnip greens and chocolate cake. If they are like mine, they’ll pick chocolate cake every time. Years ago, I studied an instructor manual that was so full of Bloom’s Taxonomies, Herzburg’s Theories and Maslow’s Hierarchies that I was cognitively psychomotored right out of the affective learning domain (say what?). I retained a fraction of the valuable information contained in the manual but the book was pure turnip greens. No one can change the annoying human tendency to swallow what is trivial and fun and spurn what is vital and boring. If we minimize the turnip greens and make essential learning taste like chocolate cake, we will improve the odds of it actually being digested and converted into action.

Of course, appealing to the senses is not the only way to get the message across. Last fall I did a presentation on holiday fire safety at our community centre. I pinned up eye-catching posters and sent out a snazzy flyer to make sure everyone knew that coffee and cookies – not turnip greens – would be served. The day arrived and a microscopic handful of people came to hear my brilliant discourse. Even by Upsala standards it was a lousy showing.
Contrastingly, that same day, the local nursing station set up a flu clinic, advertised with a small, hand-scrawled poster. The villagers came en masse without being offered so much as a glass of water. What was the difference? H1N1 captured their imagination. Fear of the flu was the only meteorite that made landfall that day and it didn’t require hours of instruction to produce action.

A million hours of training logged in firefighter Pete’s file does not ensure he will perform at the moment of truth. It has to be the right training and it must make its way into Pete’s hands and feet on the fire ground. A savvy firefighter who is safe and efficient is better than any insurance policy.

The question remains: How do we get people to do what we want them to do? I know I’m rethinking my strategy. Forget luring them with food and coffee and entertainment. Just offer to jab a needle into their arms and they’ll respond in droves.

Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at and check out his blog at

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