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September 27, 2013

Tom Lewis: JIBC 2013 Instructor of the Year

Going the distance for Emergency Management Division

The first thing you notice about Tom Lewis is his undeniable energy. Some might call it personal power.  It comes across even in a one-on-one conversation.  Enthusiastic. Passionate. Intense. Just a few of the ways he’s described by those who nominated him to receive this year’s Instructor of the Year award at JIBC’s annual Awards of Excellence ceremony, September 25, 2013.

The former deputy fire chief and emergency coordinator for the City of Surrey has taught on contract with JIBC for the past seven years.

Maybe that’s why this piece of advice, advice he gives to all those who take his emergency management courses, comes as a bit of a surprise.  

“You’ve got to slow down before you speed up,” he says, referring to how to go into a major incident. “The tendency, especially if it’s someone’s first major incident,” he said “is for the adrenalin to start pumping and when that happens it’s easy to get tunnel vision.” As a captain, he used to tell his driver [on the fire truck] to slow down just before he got to the incident. “It’s a way to take a deep breath and remind yourself of what you’ve been taught.”

“It’s okay to have butterflies, he says, “as long as those butterflies are flying in formation.”

Short-Lived Retirement

Heather Lyle, Director, Integrated Public Safety, Emergency Management BC, and former EMD Program Manager at JIBC saw Lewis’s spark and was set on convincing him to teach. Initially he was too busy. The second time she asked, she was more strategic. She called him the day before his retirement.

“I had a four-day retirement,” said Lewis who left his job at the Surrey Fire Department on November 30th, 2006 after a 30 year career that morphed from fire fighter to lieutenant to training officer to Deputy Chief of Operations and City Emergency Coordinator in Surrey.  Just days later on December 4, 2007 he co-facilitated his first Incident Command System course at JIBC.  It’s hard to imagine that the 67-year-old (who used to ride 400 – 500 km a week, and was a competitive road racer and competitor in the Police and Fire Games) would ever really aspire to put his feet up. 

Late to First Responder role

The first responder-crisis response profession came as he describes “rather late in the game at the ripe old age of 31”.  Prior to that he’d attended a year of college, got a Class 1 license, drove tractor trailers, and was then asked to teach air brakes and tractor trailer courses for a transport trucking company and Surrey Fire Services.  He believes that diverse range of prior work experience now helps him to connect with very diverse audiences ranging from oil executives to First Nations leaders to key stakeholders preparing for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Games and the G8/G20 summits in Ontario.  He’s facilitated emergency management courses close to home, across Canada, and in other cultures.

 “What sets Tom apart,” says Jerome Rodriguez, Program Manager of Incident Command and Emergency Management training, “is how incredibly prepared he is for every course he teaches. Saudi Arabia was a prime example.  It’s a 30-hour trip just to get there. He travelled with Captain Gavin Summers of the Burnaby Fire Department to facilitate a workshop on Command Tactics at Major Fires.  Upon arrival, in spite of the jetlag, he met with conference organizers to confirm that the content was appropriate. After that meeting, given that the planning had been done from afar, he set about making tweaks to better address the participants’ needs. He worked into the wee hours of the morning and was up early the next day to facilitate the workshop.”

Summers says the thing about Tom is that he’s able to back up verbal explanations with visuals and card exercises that make it easier for students, especially students from different cultures, to understand the principles of Incident Command at major incidents. Rodriguez says Tom’s emergency response experience at both the strategic and tactical levels allows him to establish the relevant context for the audience, select applicable case studies and examples, and then customize the course. “He possesses an innate ability to bring the training to life,” said Rodriguez.

“I ask myself what I would personally want to know, to take away from a course and that’s how I develop my delivery,” said Lewis.  “Application of knowledge is the most important thing.”

He recalls the prep before teaching an Incident Command course at a large university in central Canada. When he arrived, he walked the campus noting safety hazards. When the participants sat down, he started showing photos of the hazards until the students realized it was their environment that they were critiquing thereby making the subject matter even more relevant.

Clients and Friendships Matter Most

Although Tom is pleased to be singled out and to receive this year’s Instructor of the Year award, he says there’s no doubt that the biggest reward comes in the form of the  work he does with clients and the friendships that have been formed as a result.

“When you think of what people remember about how people behave in emergency situations it goes back to leadership,” he says.  He pinpoints Rudy Guiliani in New York during 9-11, and closer to home, the Mayor of Calgary [Naheed Nenshi] and how he handled that city’s recent floods.  

When he’s not working, Tom enjoys good red wine, an annual end-of-summer trip to Naramata, and more recently a quick visit to Chicago where his wife Jenny, who runs LEWCO Consulting Inc., was headed to teach.

Lewis’s support letters came from across Canada from the following people:

  • Gavin Summers, Captain, Burnaby Fire Department
  • Loretta Chandler, Director of the Office of Emergency Management, City of Toronto
  • Gina Cliffe, Emergency Management Coordinator, City of Hamilton
  • The RCMP’s Operational Readiness & Response Unit
  • Colleen Vaughan, Acting Dean, Public Safety & Security, JIBC
  • Jerome Rodriguez, Incident Command Program Manager, JIBC

Congratulations Tom!

Tags: Emergency Management Division, first responder, Instructor of the Year

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Last updated August 20, 2014