Canadian Firefighter Magazine

The evolution of firefighter training: Insights from Calgary and Winnipeg

By Brittani Schroeder   

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Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service conducting live fire training. Photo: Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service

In recent years, fire services across Canada, like the Calgary Fire Department (CFD) and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS), have undertaken initiatives to enhance firefighter training, responding to evolving challenges and emerging best practices. Many departments have recognized the imperative of revisiting fundamental training methods and embracing innovative approaches to ensure the safety and preparedness of their personnel. 

From reevaluating response models to integrating modern fire science and prioritizing mental wellness, Canadian Firefighter was able to learn about the journeys of both services as they refocused their training initiatives to meet the needs of their firefighters and communities. 

Evolution of training strategies

In the ever-changing landscape of firefighter training, recent years have seen a shift in priorities for both CFD and WFPS.

For CFD, the past few years have been about revisiting the fundamentals, especially after the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Training during that time was certainly impacted, and it feels like you can never catch up. But about identifying priorities, and what’s the difference that will make a difference,” said Robin Loewen, training coordinator. The training team initiated a reset, scrutinizing their processes to enhance member training. This involved station-based drills, fostering crew-centric training, and updating instructor-led sessions for “maximum” impact.  

CFD has also reevaluated their response models, implementing evidence-based practices from the Underwriters Laboratories Fire Safety Research Institute (UL FSRI). The training division is also working to create a tactics guide for the service for the first time. 

“We’re developing cadre-based training, born out of the evidence-based fire suppression research from FSRI, and starting to implement new techniques, including our hose handling skills,” said Loewen. 

“Training is a perpetual cycle.” – Brian McAsey

Curriculum designers like Justyna Potocki observed a shift towards blended training approaches, incorporating e-learning to establish a knowledge baseline before hands-on sessions.

Projects within CFD’s annual training plan focus on aligning with NFPA standards, ensuring each member’s skills and knowledge are up to par. Jason Riddell, training officer and acting training coordinator, highlighted the implementation of a roster system to track the training progress of all 1,500 members, ensuring no member falls behind.

Within WFPS’ training division, the focus has been on updating its officer training beyond its historically skills-focused and command-centric approach. While still prioritizing these aspects, soft skills and personnel management training are now significantly included. New programs immerse officers in various human resources scenarios, with the hope of fostering collaboration and adaptability that is crucial for future leadership roles. 

Scott Wilkinson, deputy chief of fire rescue operations and training, noted the emphasis placed on the service’s fire dynamics program, which was derived from Ottawa Fire Service’s ‘From Knowledge to Practice’ initiative. This program combines four days of theoretical learning before hands-on training that covers fire science, heat release rates, chemicals, gases, and more. 

“We’re trying to put our people in a better position to fight fires safely and intelligently. This includes their fire science knowledge, decision-making techniques and hose advancements,” said Wilkinson. Eighty-five per cent of WFPS is now trained in this program.

Beyond fire dynamics, WFPS stresses the importance of shared skill practice, particularly as a joint fire and paramedic service. Reality-based medical training encourages collaborative skill application in various scenarios. 

They also place a strong focus on occupational hygiene. With the goal of not bringing contaminants back to the station in the firetrucks, crews coming out of a scene will use specific equipment doffing techniques, wipe downs, bagging and cleaning before gear is returned to the station for advanced cleaning. 

“We also utilize a PPE maintenance program across our stations so that our crews don’t wash their gear anymore. The bags are picked up and taken to a centralized cleaning site staffed by accredited personnel for inspection and cleaning. This is all with the goal of reducing cancer risks,” said Wilkinson. 

Photos: Calgary Fire Department

Transformations in fire science instruction

Looking back at the evolution of fire science, Wilkinson, with over three decades of firefighting experience, noted a rapid increase in knowledge in recent years, contrasting with slower progress during his early career. 

“Until the early 2000s, the industry relied on textbooks from the 70s and 80s,” he remarked. 

As building materials changed, so did the need for updated education. Modern fire science emphasizes specific techniques and condition recognition over simply charging into fires, a practice that has proven detrimental in the past. Wilkinson stressed the importance of proper assessment and tactical decision-making to ensure safety for both firefighters and occupants.

CFD, an early adopter of UL FSRI’s fire science, has integrated it into training for over a decade. “Although adoption was gradual due to our organization’s size, perceptions have shifted,” said Loewen. Challenges initially arose due to isolated UL FSRI studies, which later evolved to encompass interrelated aspects, aiding in quantification and discussion. “One example of evolving procedures concerns door control. We handle that differently than we did 10 years ago.” 

Standardized jargon has also helped to facilitate communication and alignment with industry best practices, which have enhanced scene descriptions and understanding among members.

Bringing the science into practical applications is now a major focus for CFD.  

Their training division engages in collaborative efforts, attending conferences and meetings with departments on both sides of the border to develop best practices. Discussions often revolve around building construction’s impact on fires and burn times and have emphasized the need for understanding how heat release rates affect suppression efforts.  

“We need to fire fires aggressively, but from a safe distance while adhering to occupational health and safety guidelines,” said Riddell. 

Photo: Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service

Managing lithium-ion battery emergencies

Lithium-ion battery risks are a constant concern for today’s firefighters, driving extensive research at services like WFPS and CFD to establish best practices for member and community safety. 

Wilkinson noted the growth of lithium-ion batteries causing structure fires, as electric vehicle (EV) incidents are less frequent in Winnipeg at this time. “It’s difficult because everyone is doing research, so there are dozens of differing perspectives on how to deal with and manage it. There are specialized pieces of equipment to use, but then the car manufacturers are saying not to use them,” he said. 

WFPS has been researching for nearly a year to finalize a revised standard operating procedure for vehicle fires, emphasizing safety, approach and management, including the importance of cooling the batteries while being mindful of toxic runoff.

Wilkinson underscored the challenges posed by EV charging stations in underground parkades, given the heightened heat transmission and complexities of combating fires in enclosed spaces. 

“Not much makes me lose sleep at night, but that does,” Wilkinson said. 

Calgary firefighters have collaborated with agencies like Los Angeles and Phoenix, sharing knowledge on managing the lithium-ion crisis in similar environments. The hazmat division at CFD is actively developing policies and guidelines for handling battery-related events and educating frontline members on hazards, response options and logistical considerations.

In addition to EV fires, fire services across North America are facing severe challenges with personal mobility device fires, like eBikes and eScooters, and motor vehicle accidents involving EVs’ heavier weight and reinforced frames. 

“We have mass and velocity working against us for extrication purposes. Instead of cutting by using our hydraulic tools, we’re fracturing the skeleton of the car, which also poses a danger to firefighters. Then, with exposed wires, we need to understand the different voltages of different wires, and the potential energy that is being stored,” said Riddell. “Just remember, you could fight a car fire for hours and it won’t go out, whereas a booster tank was typically going to solve your problem in a gas vehicle.”

According to the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, firefighters need up to 40 times more water to put out a fire in an EV than a standard gasoline car.

“There’s a reason why it’s causing so much stress on everyone because, for every solution, there’s already someone who’s saying that it’s outdated,” said Loewen. “We’re really just trying to figure out ‘what does safe look like’ in these situations.”

Photos: Calgary Fire Department

Prioritizing mental wellness

Amid growing awareness of the importance of mental health in first responders, CFD has implemented a multifaceted approach to mental wellness, featuring resilience officers, a mental health governance committee, a psychological safety group, and an ability management and wellness section that involves staff psychologists. Limited exposure therapy aids in member reintegration, while recruit training includes resilience and stress management techniques. 

CFD has recently launched online learning modules covering trauma-informed leadership and mental readiness. These programs are tailored for firefighters, leaders, and families of first responders. 

“It’s okay not to be okay,” emphasizes Riddell, highlighting the culture of openness and support within the department, which he believes has a profound impact.

Similar to these sentiments, Wilkinson recognized that his dedication to firefighters’ mental health began many years ago after serving as a peer support member and coordinator for WFPS. Establishing a robust peer support program and a behavioural health unit with dedicated behavioural nurses and prompt access to psychologists has been a priority for the WFPS. 

“A struggle in the fire service is that not many have prompt access to psychological treatment. Some are lucky if they even have peer support or other mental health education,” said Wilkinson. “We recently lost one of our members to suicide, and that reminds us that there’s always more we can be doing to help our people.”

“We’re trying to put our people in a better position to fight fires safely and intelligently.” – Scott Wilkinson

WFPS is often assessing its efforts and exploring new approaches. Recognizing the challenges and costs involved for many services, Wilkinson stressed the importance of prioritizing proactive resources for education and building resilience. “Think of the best interests and wellness of your people.” 

Fostering collaboration and innovation

Wilkinson, Loewen and Riddell would all agree on the importance of sharing information across services for long-term benefits. 

“Keep in mind that it’s copy, edit, paste. While processes from other services are valid, it won’t look exactly the same in your jurisdiction, based on your needs and what you’re dealing with,” said Wilkinson. 

His team at WFPS is hoping to generate innovative ideas and systems that can be adopted by smaller services that may have more limited resources. “Creating a compelling business case is key to securing resources,” he advises, stressing the importance of demonstrating how each investment benefits both personnel and the community.

To Wilkinson, every day is a training day. “There should always be something you’re drilling on or practicing. Our job is to be practiced and prepared to perform when the time comes.” 

CFD also acknowledged the growing demand for efficiencies as call volumes rise, with plans to expand its ranks by 400 members over a period of four years. 

“Training is a perpetual cycle at CFD,” noted Brian McAsey, deputy chief of operations support, highlighting the need to cater to recruits, experienced firefighters, and leaders alike.

Riddell underscored the importance of a balanced training schedule that addresses high-level skills while incorporating thoughtful feedback processes. “Understanding how our adult learners best absorb information is crucial because, overall, we want to be producing excellent firefighters.”  

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