Pushing you to the limit

Published:  01 June, 2008

In this next instalment of our search for the top fire instructors of the world we talk with Tony “Sledgehammer” Keane, of Washington Hall International Training Centre, in the UK.

What is your specialist/favourite training subject(s)?


We are expected to be multifunctional instructors with the ability to deliver a number of different subjects. I normally take a leading role in delivering BA to new recruits and BA trainer courses.


Practically PPV has to be the most dramatic teaching tool we use. Over a short session PPV’s ability to have a substantial effect on the fire, and the tremendous improvement of conditions in relation to heat and smoke speaks for itself.


In the classroom we have a full day during the incident command course on tactical decision exercises. The unpredictability of the session and the ability to engage students in a mixed group from new to experienced fire officers makes this an enjoyable interactive session.

Describe your approach to training firefighters


I don’t think I have what you would call a specific type or style of approach, more of a mish mash of life’s experiences (ok, mistakes)! I try to be honest and be myself. If you don’t, the students soon pick up on it and you lose your credibility as a trainer.
 I was given a bit of advice from an old corporal (many moons ago after I was promoted whilst serving in the British army); “Treat others how you would like to be treated”. Even though he didn’t practice his own advice, it still holds true today.


One of the other trainers has told me I make a great schizophrenic! In the classroom, I am approachable and open to the students needs, once we move out and go into practical exercises I become more assertive.


What I can say is that during my early days as a trainer I was happy to survive to the end of the session without making a complete idiot of myself. As time passes and both experience and confidence grow, the needs of the students become easier to address.

Most common mistake or misunderstanding made by pupils on one of your courses


Students occasionally arrive without having had any formal training for some time, or have been told by others about how bad/hot it is. This puts the student ill at ease and potentially puts them in the wrong frame of mind. It can get so bad it causes extra problems. For example last summer during a warm spell I was running a one-day crew refresher course for operational firefighters. One firefighter complained about the heat in the gallery during the morning session, stating, “there really is no need for all that heat”. We agreed, but there was no fire and he had been worked up so much he hadn’t realised that the instructor and team were only wearing dust masks.


We tell students what to expect; how they will be assessed; and inform them we have moved away from “burn to learn” mentality –  it’s now more “warm to inform”.

Proudest moment as an instructor


I don’t have an individual moment in time, but a collection of memories.
A colleague and I delivered a basic BA initial course in Qatar (I still can’t believe I volunteered to go to a hot country to deliver hot fire training). The cultural, language, geographic and location difficulties made it a very satisfying memory.


One of our support staff tells a tale about me standing over an international student: he had entered the firehouse, rescued a casualty and brought it back out, all in about five minutes, and then for no physical reason he decided he was not going in again. “Mr Tony, I swear on my mother’s life I can go no further!”


He was lying on his back with his eyes screwed shut. He later told me, he knew if he was to look me in the eye, I would make him go in. Yes, he did look at me, and yes, he did go back in. At the end of the course the same student said it was the best course he had ever been on. It may have been euphoria about surviving or he may have finally seen the need to push himself.

Favourite piece of equipment, and why


This is a cheesy question! There are two pieces of equipment I would nominate for this category: PPV (positive pressure ventilation units) and TIC (thermal image cameras). Both of these when used properly have the potential to make the role of a firefighter safer and more effective. For me they represent the advances in fire fighting tools and techniques over my time in the fire service.

Strangest/most embarrassing situation (operationally/on a course)


My first posting was, as I previously mentioned, to a town called Burnley. I was on a watch of 17, which had two fire appliances, a turntable ladder, a breathing apparatus unit and a foam pod. It was during my first summer on station (a particular warm one as I remember).


We received a call to a house fire and persons reported, just my luck. I was not thinking of the misery the fire had inflicted on someone but that I had been detailed number five at the change of shift, meaning I was not wearing breathing apparatus, but was responsible for other unexciting tasks such as gaining entry, getting water, entry control or whatever other task needed to be done.


The call came in the middle of the afternoon sending both fire appliances to a middle terraced house, located in an area of back-to-back terraced streets, stone fronts, slate roofs, two rooms upstairs two down, a small yard at the rear and when the houses were built there would have been cobbles on the road front and rear, long since covered with tarmac.


It was in the middle of the children’s school holidays. On turning into the street, smoke was issuing from an upstairs window. The next few minutes were a blur of activity – the usual, all the firefighters knowing what to do with professional efficiency. The next thing I remember I’m standing at the front door, 16lb sledgehammer in hand, four firefighters donning BA. Looking past the BA crews I saw that a huge crowd had gathered to watch.
At 6 feet 2’’ I can swing the sledgehammer in quite a large arc. With all the effort I could muster I brought the sledgehammer down, not on the lock of the door as intended but on the stone upright adjacent. The shock wave went up my arms and made my teeth rattle. About this time we found out it was no longer persons reported but a fire in the bedroom – pressure was now off; I could try to open the door again. With adrenalin pumping I took a second swing, I can still hear the laughter now as I hit the stone upright... again.


With nowhere to hide I took a third and final swing determined not to miss. I didn’t, but I overcompensated and hit the door on a thin wooden panel next to the lock. With all the effort I had put in and the lack of substance on the panel, it completely gave way; the sledgehammer flew out of my hands and disappeared into the house, followed by an almighty crash as it then went through an inner lobby door.

Tell us a joke


Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman are chatting in a bar, and the Englishman says, “Our son was born on St George’s day so we named him George.” The Scotsman says, “My son was born on St Andrew’s day so we named him Andrew.” The Irishman looks at them both and says, “Wait until I tell our Pancake.”

  • Operation Florian

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