Thursday, May 27, 2010

Strange but totally true

Firefighters are strange critters. Take Andrew from Toronto for example. He has a good job working for one of the biggest fire departments in Canada, yet he loves hopping a plane and flying to Thunder Bay and travelling across Northwestern Ontario instructing for the Ontario Fire College . . . at about half the pay of his normal job. He likes doing that.

Then there is Graham from Atikokan (Atikokan, by the way, shares the peripheral edge of the universe with Upsala). He shoots flies off the ceiling with rubber bands. No, I'm not kidding, or even exaggerating. Graham is a fly-killing Robin Hood. He can also stick a beer bottle to the wall using some sort of friction voodoo physics. Just ask the folks at Ignace bar, who are probably still talking about it two years later. I could write a whole blog book about Graham.

Then there is Brian, from Switch2PlanB. I'm not even going to talk about him. You'll just have to go over there and read it for yourself.

As for me, I wasn't a born firefighter. My dad is a music engraver, not a cop or a paramedic or a hose monkey. I trained horses, farmed, went to Japan to grow rice and teach English, and finally worked as a logger before stumbling through the back door of the fire service. And now, having performed my very first cat rescue, I can claim a spot amongst all the cat-saving generations of firefighters that went before me.

Except that none of the firefighters that I know rescue cats. After my cat escapade, I received lots of friendly advice from firefighters on how to deal with future feline encounters . . . chainsaws and a blast from a fire hose were two of them. At least I'm trying to be a real firefighter.

The strangest thing about firefighters is our love affair with chaos and disaster. If you are on one of those departments that get a hundred calls a day, you might be all burned-out and cynical and I-don't-care-about-going-to-calls, but even you hardline, dyed in the wool, fought-a-million-fires veterans would get edgy if you had nothing for months on end. Just think how we feel, out here on the peripheral edge of the universe, where we tallied up a total of two calls between October and March last winter. That kind of inaction is enough to drive a crazy person sane.

But fortunately spring comes, and with it comes wildland fires and vehicle crashes and truck brakes catching on fire and cats stuck in trees and . . . did I just say fortunately? FORTUNATELY? Fortunately for who? Not for the guy driving the truck or for all those unfortunate trees, and especially not for the poor kitty.

(Come to think of it, maybe the cat is fortunate. If it had got stuck in another department's tree, they would have chainsawed or hose blasted it down. Just sayin').

If there is a point (and I think there is), it would be something along the lines of firefighters might be the only breed of people that flourish when bad things happen. We go for weeks or months checking oil, and examining equipment and testing breathing apparatus and doing drills, and we slowly but surely wilt away with the humdrum, everyday stuff that we do. So when someone is having a bad day and actually needs us, and we can actually do something useful, we may stop short of thinking it's fortunate, but we are at least glad that they crashed or burned or got stuck in Upsala territory, so that we (not the guys in the next town) could put all that preparation to some use.

[Side note: Of course, there are normal guys among our ranks as well. Folks that would just as soon work their paying jobs as go muck around in breathing apparatus at a tractor trailer fire. Folks that do this purely because they care, not because they like the rush. These are the true blue volunteers that are the backbone of small communities. There aren't many left, and God help us when they pass off the scene.]

Sometimes it all backfires. We get an ugly vehicle crash and people die . . . not just die, but . . . well never mind. Or a friend's house burns to the ground and there isn't a thing we can do to save it. Or we spend all night in -35 degree weather fighting a stubborn fire, and by morning we wonder why the @#%$ we ever misuse our bodies this way.

But it all goes away, and we wake up the next day and check our pagers to make sure they are working, because you just never know.

We're a strange bunch of critters.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

opinions and pie

My writing is 99.99% personal opinion. While I conscientiously reserve the remaining .01% for indisputable fact, I admit I'm opinionated.

My opinions take in bureaucrats and terrorists and politicians and dictators and other related critters. I have strong viewpoints on cartoons that infuriate a quarter of the world, and even stronger ones about the quarter of the world that is infuriated by silly cartoons.You probably know my sentiments on government spending and government non-spending. And don't forget my opinions on capitalistic health care vs. socialistic health care.

The good thing about slinging my opinions into cyberspace is that perhaps a motivated, brainy person will say, "Wow, that's a nifty opinion. I should do something about that." And using their motivational brain skills, they might just influence a politician to be more responsible or a religious fruitcake to be less fruity. And the world will be a slightly better place.

How's that for pie-in-the-sky?

Opinions, even altruistic and noble ones, are still just plain old opinions. They aren't immutable truth. Last week, Upsala Fire Department's opinion was, "Say no to cats." That changed because a cat lover challenged the status quo and persuaded me to reconsider my opinion. By extending that vein of thought, suppose a politician could prove that he wasn't just a self absorbed opportunist, or a terrorist could persuade me that murdering school kids was a really good thing, then my opinion about them might change.

More pie.

The bad thing about opinions is that they make me all cynical and angry and sarcastic, and no one enjoys cynical, angry, sarcastic blogger blather. I want the best of both worlds: enjoyment for you, the reader, and a launching pad for me, the blogger, so I try to channel that negative passion into positive humour. I make fun of bureaucrats and politicians and and terrorists (and other related critters). It doesn't change the world, but at least I feel like I'm changing the world. How else is a two-bit fire chief on the far-flung peripheral edge of the universe supposed to make a difference?

So, I'll continue to rant about the lack of support for volunteer fire departments , and about under-worked, over-paid bureaucrats that ensnarl get-'er-done chiefs. And I won't forget to add a dash of gospel truth, like the study on shrew's saliva that offers hope for future cancer treatment. (btw, can you imagine how many salivating shrews it would take to get a thimbleful of saliva?). Or the sad plight of other bloggers like Yoani Sanchez of Cuba.

Yes, this blog will continue to be the launching pad for my opinions. And maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place.

It's a good thing I like pie.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I can't believe we actually did it . . .

I said I would never do it. I said we (as in we, the Upsala Fire Department) would never do it. But we did it. We perpetuated an age-old misconception, a time-honoured fallacy. Firefighters don't really rescue cats from trees . . . but we did just that a few evenings ago.

Here's me hugging the tree and dragging the reluctant cat, who is also hugging the tree with her twenty claws, and leaving twenty deep grooves in the bark, and demanding that I release her this instant on pain of having twenty deep grooves clawed into my face.

And here's the descent.

And safely into her owner's arms.

My friend Bill, who is a career firefighter from Thunder Bay, says they don't rescue cats. If you've been reading, you probably know that I've said we don't either. And we didn't until my pager went off the other evening.

When the the voice on on the pager says, "Upsala duty officer, call dispatch," you know something unusual is only a phone call away. In this case it was two phone calls away . . . one to dispatch (to whom I said, "We don't do cats," and who replied, "I know you don't do cats), and one to the caller to tell him that we don't do cats. Except that the caller said he was sorry to bother us and he lived alone and the cat was his only companion and he would have climbed the ladder himself but he was physically infirm and he didn't know what else to do . . . and my resolve melted away faster than the snow in an El Nino spring.

"Sure, we'll come have a look," I hear myself say. Then I hung up and wondered if I really said it. I went next door (where the deputy chief conveniently lives) to ask for back up, and within minutes (amid snickers and comments like, "I can't believe you agreed to this") we were at the scene of our very first bonafide cat rescue.

The cat was distinctly ungrateful. Fortunately I had opted to respond in full turnout gear, so her claws never made contact with my skin. Now I know why the other firefighters I know bring a shotgun to all cat rescue calls.

The cat may not have been happy about us saving one of its nine lives, but the owner certainly was. When all is said and done, I guess that's what matters, right? Except the cat escaped his loving arms before we had loaded the ladder, and promptly ran up another tree. Next time, I may just have to bring my shotgun.

When I arrived home to brag about my exploits, I found this in my kitchen:

Vanessa and her friend wanted to camp in the backyard, but a bear has been hanging around lately, so they hatched a plot to camp in the kitchen instead (with the help of Erinn). Here they are, smug and satisfied and bear-safe, ready for the adventure.

Yes, that's a TV in the foreground. I may be a fearless, cat-saving firefighter, but I'm a pushover dad.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I knew that already

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) performed a study on fire responses, and drew some astounding conclusions: four person crews do the job faster than three person crews . . . and a lot faster than two person crews. They also deduced that quick response times were good because the fire was smaller when the crew arrived.

I think I already knew that. We've responded with two and three and four, and sometimes even five, six and seven firefighters. Ask anyone from the Upsala crew and you'll get a unanimous opinion that more sooner is always better than less later. Like the quote that is erroneously attributed to Nathan Forrest, the Confederate General who supposedly stated that the key to success was to "git thar fustest with the mostest men."

But NIST didn't ask me first, and they obviously didn't read General Forrest. It's probably just as well. The folks with the money already know what I think, and they don't believe me. Maybe they'll believe the gurus at NIST. Come to think of it, the problem isn't believing, it's acting. The politicians (even if they read the report) will say, "Wow. More is better. Faster is better. Cool. Now lets get on with important business, and pass that bill to raise our salaries."

If you want more edumication on these matters, click
here and here for NIST, and here for General "Git Thar Fustest" Forrest.

The problem is we continue to respond, with whatever crew we can muster, so the folks with the money continue to ignore us without fear of repercussions. It isn't like volunteer firefighters will ever go on strike . . . and if they did, people would shrug and say, "What's the big deal? Nothing is burning, we don't need them right now anyway . . ."

Gillies Fire Department tried it once, actually. They were frustrated that Council wouldn't replace their 1972 pumper . . . which happened to be their front-line vehicle. Drastic problems generate drastic solutions, and they all turned their pagers in together at Town Hall in protest. I wasn't there, but I suspect that indifference reigned right up to the moment the (former) chief asked dispatch for a page test. Then all hell broke loose in Town Hall.

"OMG the pagers are going off! We have no fire department! What are we going to do?! Those @#$%! boneheads . . . it was only a test" (collapse on the floor and mutter ugly things about volunteer firefighters).

Gillies Fire Department still has a 1972 pumper as their front line vehicle. Some day when I'm King . . .

On a completely unrelated topic, there was a large, wet bear print at the base of my porch steps this morning. Sasha, my fierce, pint-sized, mini cockapoo guard dog, still hasn't forgiven me for refusing to let her track him down and turn him into bear burgers. I deplore violence, and would prefer to negotiate a peaceful solution (something along the lines of "go away bear, so I don't have to put a bullet in your head). Tis the season to keep your garbage locked away tightly.

The weather gremlins are apparently on the meteorological campaign trail in their bid to rule the world. Warm summer temperatures now accompany the lack of rain. So far we've managed to jump on every wildland fire fast enough to prevent an all-out forest fire war. We've mastered the "git thar fuster" part, but we still need help on getting "the mostest men." We responded to the last one with three firefighters . . . hmmm, seems like I read a report about four is better than three. Perhaps it's time to make that coalition with the Gremlin Party.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

crash course

I've torn apart a multitude of vehicles in my career. Chevys, Fords, Hondas . . . cars, trucks, vans . . . doors, roofs, pillars, trunks . . . limb from groaning limb, using heavy hydraulics and hand tools, both at emergency scenes and in training.

I've never had a chance to destroy an aircraft. Helicopters and planes don't fall out of the sky as often as their rolling road cousins fall off the highway, so I never felt the need to pursue training on the subject. At least, not until MNR (the forest fire experts) asked me to teach a one-day course on aircraft extrication.

Being the practical, hands-on kind of guy that I am, my first question was, "Do you have an old plane or chopper we can cut up for practice? No? How about a tour of the hangar so we can study the anatomy of your aircraft? No? A photo? No? A list of construction materials? A hand sketched artist's impression maybe? A crayon drawing by your four year old daughter . . . ?

I guess when you own flying machines that cost 30 million dollars, you have to be fussy about who gets close to your fleet. You never know when potential saboteurs might be masquerading as extrication instructors. I'll have to add this problem to my fix-it list for when I become King of the World . . .

Fortunately, even marginal fire chiefs on the peripheral edge of the universe can access information through the internet. I took a wandering odyssey in search of aircraft extrication wisdom, and unearthed enough photos and info to get me started. Then I used a figurative vise to crunch four days of intensive hands-on, smash and crash training into one day of I-hope-I'm-not-boring-you classroom education. Not the best way to skin the cat, but at least they got an overview.

After the dust settled, and the students filed out of the room, their brains overflowing with information, one of the crew bosses approached me.

"Did I hear you say you want to see the aircraft?"

"Can I?"

"I don't see why not . . . "

Sigh. Where was this guy last week when I was trying to convince the world that I wasn't a terrorist? But better late than never.

Here's my off-the-cuff impression of the two aircraft I toured: the helicopter is made of cardboard, so don't sneeze too hard or the doors will fall off. No problem getting in if it crashes . . . there won't be any "in" or "out" left. The waterbomber, on the other hand, is like a flying tank . . . a water tank and an armoured tank that stands 29 feet high, with a wingspan of 93 feet. If this baby goes down, and you respond for extrication, don't expect be be home by dinner time.

Those waterbomber pilots need a doctorate in Gadgetology, with nerves of steel to boot. I sat in the pilot seat for about five minutes and started getting air sick . . . and the plane wasn't even moving. The cockpit dash was a sea of dials and gauges and switches and buttons . . . and somehow these guys decipher this menagerie of technology well enough to scoop up 1350 imperial gallons of water in 12 seconds, and drop it with deadly precision on the fire.

As a side note, if you're a waterbomber pilot in Northwestern Ontario, and the weather gremlins continue on with their current policy, don't expect to get many holidays this summer. It's not quite Sahara Desert dry out there, but it's getting close.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

king of the world

My ambitions to become King of the World are fading. Number one, I doubt that I could gain the popular vote in a free election. Number two, I'm not aggressive enough to stage a hostile takeover. Number three, I just haven't got the moxy to change one or two. I am gradually developing an election platform though. Click here, here, and here to see what I would do if I were King of the World.

I may never be King, but I might have a shot at Kingmaker. Britain's Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg knows what that's about. It's when you haven't got enough votes to be King, but no one else does either, so you throw your support behind the leader of your choice on condition that he looks out for your interests. It's a shot at influence that would normally elude a marginal politician (or a blogger on the peripheral edge of the universe). You can read about boring British politics here.

To be the Kingmaker, you have to evaluate the merits of the front runners, and pick one to support. In my case, I would closely examine the Bureaucrats, the Weather Gremlins, the Terrorists, the Starmakers of Livermore, and the Sadistically Demented Evil Computer Barons (all targets of my campaign to reform the world). It would be a tough choice . . . much more difficult that the one Mr. Clegg faces.

I definitely wouldn't choose the Terrorists (something about blowing up women and children doesn't agree with me).

The Bureaucrats would be my second-to-last choice (even though I technically am one, and have made several attempts to delve even deeper into the Dark Side).

The Starmakers look good, but I don't have much faith in their leadership ability (and I wouldn't want to be identified with the guys that accidentally blow the world to smithereens).

That leaves the Weather Gremlins and the Sadistically Demented Evil Computer Barons. I'd probably choose the Weather Gremlins. The Computer Barons are too intent on their own ambition to create mass confusion to agree to a coalition with a lowly blogger.

In every power struggle there are wildcards. Bloggers like Brian and Ginny could easily play a major role in world domination. Calendar guys like Chad are well on the way too, but none of these folks need help from a wannabe kingmaker who lives on the edge of the universe. I'm sticking with the Gremlins.

Speaking of Chad from the Fire Within, he wrote an insightful article on the differences between Canadian and US fire departments, and gave me permission to share it here. It took me a while outwit the evil computer barons and figure out how to link a non-internet based pdf file to my blog, but I think I succeeded. Click here to read the article.

On a totally unrelated topic Captain Kangaroo used to say, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool Mom." I think he stole that from Abe Lincoln or someone, and twisted it around to serve his purpose of conning kids into good behaviour, but it's true nonetheless. This omniscient, omnipresent attribute serves mothers well, but it makes them the most difficult people in the world to surprise. Moms are everywhere, all the time. Which makes Mothers Day an exercise in espionage, with Dad and the kids playing 007.

The surprise this year was a wrought iron sandhill crane that Erinn coveted at a garden shop. We had to purchase it on the sly, smuggle it to the truck, hide it at the fire hall for a week, fend off attempts to visit my office and (accidentally) see it, wrap it undercover, and smuggle it into the house for Sunday morning. Erinn at least pretended to be surprised. James Bond would have been proud.

Come to think of it, maybe that wasn't unrelated. Maybe moms should form a coalition and rule the world . . .

Isn't this supposed to be a firefighting blog?

Saturday, May 8, 2010


If you look at the right side of the page, just above the "subscribe via email" box, you'll see a new link called, "beebewitz bio." It was going to be called, "a brief beebewitz bio," but it was longer than brief (and hopefully shorter than boring) so I edited the title. For all of you that have wondered about my dark, twisted past, check it out.

I write like I've lived. Kind of here and there and everywhere, with a small amount of radical mixed in.

Happy Mothers Day, and check out this site.

That's all for now. It is the write and run season after all.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


The good thing about snow in May is that it really puts a damper on wildland fires.

The bad thing about snow in May is that everyone moans about the bizarre weather, even though it has snowed every May since the first stone-age Neanderthal arrived 5,000,000 years ago. Okay, so my stone-age history is a bit shaky, but still, it has snowed in May, every May, for a very long time. So buck up Upsalanians, it's allowed to snow right up to the summer solstice if it wants to. Even if the winter snow melts completely in March, and the lakes open up in the first week of April. Now that's bizarre.

Having said that, we're supposed to get another stretch of warm, dry weather starting Saturday. Before you know it, we'll be complaining in bizarre human fashion about the dry weather, and if it doesn't rain Upsala will be a pile of ashes before the middle of July, and oh, how I wish it would snow again . . . okay, we're not that bizarre.

Speaking of bizarre things, I had couscous and buckwheat turkey stir fry for breakfast this morning. Yes, I was bored. No, I'm not offering a recipe (even though it was surprisingly quite good). If you're reading my blog, you're probably a little off-the-wall, but I don't want to push my luck too far.

In my defense, there are plenty of other places that have bizarre people who do bizarre things. Take this guy in White River. Most people would say that throwing a vacuum cleaner through your front door is a little bit nutty . . . unless an even nuttier guy is trying to chop that door down with an axe. It must be something about the good, fresh, northern air.

(BTW, if you've never heard of White River, shame on you. It's the birth place of Winnie the Pooh, for crying out loud.)

On a less bizarre note, the Fire Within has a Facebook page now, with a membership that grows daily. I overcame my intense fear of bandwagons, and boarded this one without hesitation.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Truth in advertising, other oxymorons, and trivia

An excerpt from an email that was recently sent out to all the fire departments in the area:

Kam [fire department] has a crappy old pumper truck that is surplus to our needs. Its kiss of death was when it broke down on the Fire Chief and had to be towed. It held water fine last year although our previous deputy chief did a lot of welding repairs to the 1000 gal steel tank 4 or 5 years ago. It pumped fine last year. Heater core leaks inside the cab, probably an easy fix. Some panels are rusted through, and 1 or 2 compartment doors won’t open. If there is no interest in the coming 2 weeks it will be stripped and offered to our local residents for $500, or driven to the scrap yard as it is killing my grass. I can provide pics but a drive over to see it and to kick the tires may be best. Don’t let this deal of a lifetime pass you by.

(editor's note: I used my poetic license to omit a few of the less colourful statements, but I swear the above was cut and pasted from the original ad)

The email landed in my inbox at 4:34. At 4:57 I got another one stating that the pumper was sold. Wow. Talk about the positive effect of truth in advertising. Maybe the famously smooth-talking used car dealers could learn a thing or two from a good old-fashioned, straight-shooting volunteer fire chief.

I attended a wildland fire training session on Saturday. Great to train with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), seeing that they are the forest fire specialists. The only problem is that the weather gremlins are on their lopsided tangent again, and it looks like rain off and on for the foreseeable future, so we aren't going to have anymore forest fires . . .

There's always next year.

My kids are growing up:

  • I now look up to Phillip, who is 15 and building a log cabin with his friends. I haven't had the heart to measure him, but I think he's pushing six foot two.
  • Erinn was dismayed to find that she can no longer share shoes with Vanessa, who is 12. Vanessa tried to comfort her with, "It's okay Mom. I'll let you wear my new white sandals after you grow into them."

A local dog was mortally wounded by a lynx today, and had to be put down. This got a group of us talking about what to do if a bear attacks . . . which led to a brief discussion about Grizzly Adams. My brother, who likes to take photos, and has had opportunity to be freaked out by black bears a few times, muttered something about picking a safer nickname for himself like "Dragonfly Beebe." I know he has taken photos of both bears and dragonflies, but I couldn't find any on his Eyefetch site. You can see his non-bear and dragonfly photos here.

My rational view of black bears is that they are normally peaceful creatures that don't bother humans except when they raid their garbage. You can read my non-rational account of a black bear encounter here.

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