Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Lessons from the fire

What Justin Birch’s experiences battling blazes taught him about life and teaching

Just a few years ago, Automotive Service Technician instructor Justin Birch  then himself a student in the program  was living out of a hotel room with his family, struggling with the trauma of losing their house in a fire.

“The stress financially, not having a home to go to – going through that, I didn’t want anyone else to have that struggle,” says Birch.

That experience inspired the 24-year-old to become a volunteer firefighter in Leduc. When the devastating forest fires raged last spring in Fort McMurray, Birch felt compelled to go north to help.

“It’s the whole idea of giving back,” he says. “I wanted to make a change and I personally felt I couldn’t do enough.”

The mindset of a first responder

His supervisor gave him the time off and his colleagues covered his classes. “He really wanted to go because he thought he could make a difference,” says program chair Rob Dawson.“How could I say no?”

Birch made the trip to Fort McMurray in a tow truck borrowed from his parent’s business, hauling fuel tanks to resupply emergency crews. He spent the next 55 hours working virtually without sleep, fixing vehicles, delivering fuel and fighting fires.

“Not everybody can be a first responder – it takes a certain mindset," he says. “You’ve got to be able to persevere through it, just put your head down and keep going. But it’s also the support from everyone else. You’re not alone. If everyone’s on board and everyone’s giving you support, you can get through anything.”

Paying it forward

He applies the same philosophy to teaching, offering support for his students to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. “He relates a lot of what he teaches back to his own experiences,” says Dawson. “He has a really good rapport with the students.”

As an instructor, Birch wants his classroom to be a welcoming environment. “I want my students to come here and know they have access to whatever they need. All of their worries will be left at the classroom door.”

He loves helping students work through problems and seeing the transformation in them as they figure it out together. “It’s the excitement and energy from them learning and understanding that new concept,” he adds. “There’s nothing better.”

As his students work their way through school, he hopes the experience inspires them to “pay it forward” he says. “I want them to strive to do their best, whether it’s fixing cars or helping others."