Tuesday, June 29, 2010

still crazy and still true

It looks like Upsala firefighters will be camping on a roof this fall after all. You may remember my April 22 whine about no one wanting to partner with Upsala for the Fire Within calendar project. People change and projects change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. This time, The Fire Within changed it's program slightly . . . which helped persuade two other departments to get on board . . . which helped me persuade my department to get on board, and voila, it looks like we are in the calendar business after all. Quite honestly, I think the directors of my board still think I'm crazy, and I may be, but at least I am in good company. More on this later once the details have been settled.

To use an old expression, it never rains, but it pours. The volunteer firefighter climate hasn't exactly turned into a tropical rain forest, but there are glimmers of hope that some relief from the long drought in public support might be on the way. The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs is lobbying the federal government to win tax relief for volunteer firefighters, and has developed some resources to use at the local level to aid their mission. I avoid band wagons because I'm not fond of crowded spaces, but this particular wagon still has plenty of room. If you are a firefighter, or want to support the volunteer fire service, here are some links:

Sample letter from the fire chief to the local MP
Information and stats on volunteer firefighters
Sample letter to the media
Sample letter from constituent to local MP

To top off all the potentially good press, it's really true, firefighters do rescue cats. Check out this story.


Humans have a very narrow comfort range. In fact, if our bodies don't stay a pleasant 37 degrees (98.6 for the Fahrenheit minded), and have plenty of fresh, clean air, we get uncomfortable and die real fast. Firefighters are the same as everyone else. We can't breathe underwater (although I think maybe Graham and Frank can), we choke on smoke, and our bodies scorch or freeze depending on which temperature extreme they are exposed to.

Take away our breathing apparatus and bunker gear and water rescue equipment and other bells and whistles (and the hours and hours of training that go with it), and we are just like anyone else.

Here's the point (and I knew I'd find a point if I just rambled long enough): we need that expensive equipment and training. Take it away, or let it get old and worn out, and we just stand and watch the world burn and drown and freeze like everyone else.

We need that support.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

super instructors

My brother Paul (who, by the way is a knife maker) made an interesting comment about BP agreeing to pay 20 billion dollars in compensation to the folks affected by the oil spill. He wasn't disagreeing with the necessity of the payout. He was astounded that a company could produce 20 billion dollars without a hiccup. These folks aren't the US government that can just print up extra cash when they need it. They've apparently got (or plan to have) 20 billion dollars tucked away in a rainy day fund. Kind of like I keep a piggy bank for spare change. That's rich beyond belief. Not to mention disaster beyond belief in the Gulf, but if I start on that one I'll get bearish and growly again.

So I'll talk a little about my friends instead. It's amazing how you think you know someone, only to find out that what you know is only the tip of their personality iceberg. I've taught courses with Frank and Graham for a lot of years, but I learned something new about them this weekend.

Most fire service instructors are only half human. The other half is a convoluted technogeekish, pyromaniacal psychopath that only appears when they approach a group of unsuspecting firefighter students. Give a fire instructor a tiger torch and you get instant transformation from a Clark Kentishly meek and mild personality, to a flame throwing super alien ready to educate with fire. But I knew that about these guys. I'm like that myself.

By some fluke of fate, I am teaching water rescue with Graham and Frank this weekend, and I discovered that they aren't your ordinary half and half pyro instructors. They're one third human, one third psychopath, and one third fish. Throw bags and wet suits and ropes and carabiners aren't just a well-studied topic. They lived this stuff. The fire service was just a diversion of sorts for something different. It seems unfair that so much talent and experience and knowledge can be tied up in two individuals, but who said life is fair. I have a lot of catching up to do if I want to teach alongside these guys in the water. And by catch up, I mean trying to overtake a bullet train with a bicycle. But there's no time like the present.

I guess I'd better stop writing and start studying. I am teaching water rescue alongside a shark and a killer whale tomorrow . . .

Monday, June 21, 2010


I educated a bear the other day. He refused to leave the neighbours' yard, and since leaving is the polite and mannerly thing to do when asked, they called me to teach him proper etiquette. I went, and took my shotgun as a negotiating tool.

It's not that I don't like big, furry critters with claws and teeth. I just don't like them hanging around where my kids play. Black bears rarely attack humans, which means almost never, but not quite never. The difference between 'rarely' and 'never' is a matter of statistics, and my kid will not be a statistic if I can help it.

When the kids were younger, I favoured the final solution, which guaranteed that a rude and uneducated bear never returned. Now that my kids are older, I'm getting soft. I still use my shotgun, but I prefer to negotiate with it rather than send the bear to the eternal blueberry grounds.

This black, furry fellow was just a cocky, know-it-all teenager (in bear years), and had apparently never learned that humans are bad news. Using diplomacy and gunpowder, I planted a slug in the soft lawn next to his front left paw. He responded with a rewarding leap and spin into the air, then hit the ground running. He was a fast learner, and I believe he understood my point of view. He hasn't been back.

Speaking of bears, I was in a bearish, growly mood when I wrote my last blog entry. Bearish and growly moods make words appear on my screen that never would if I were feeling sweet and sentimental. Seeing that I rarely (if ever) feel sweet and sentimental, I won't issue a retraction, but I will qualify a few things that growled their way onto my screen.

First, not all volunteer firefighters toss in the towel. There are many that stick it out for years and years, in spite of lousy equipment, frequent interruptions to home and work life, and lack of appreciation on the part of their employers. I was bearish and growly when I wrote that because it's a shame that the powers that be won't take notice until a whole department tosses in the towel. And even then, I question: do they really care, or do they just want the political problem to go away?

The next non-retraction: it isn't exactly true that no one cares. There is still an element of society that does care. These are the folks that support volunteers however they can, either with their time, or money, or other resources . . . or all three. There are even a few caring and concerned politicians out there, but they are like well mannered black bears. Both exist, but both are endangered species.

Maybe our governments and taxpayers are like that teenaged black bear - they aren't bad, they just need educated.

The Wandering River gals fired a warning shot by the front left paw of the Alberta government, and there was scrambling and noise making in response. Time will tell if any real help will come. For now, I remain bearish and growly . . . and I'm keeping my (figurative) shotgun handy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

tip of the iceberg

Close your eyes and imagine the employer from hell. He or she can dial you up at will, no notice, and no regard for family or private time, no "sorry to interrupt your very important life" . . . and you must drop everything and go to work. Immediately. Don't bother looking back at your half-eaten dinner, or your warm bed, or your longsuffering family. Just go. And hurry, your boss needs you five minutes ago.

To add insult to injury, you receive no overtime pay for this intrusion into your daily affairs. In fact, you receive no pay at all. On top of this, your company's equipment is decrepit, and if you want better, you are told to fundraise. Sell cookies. Do a car wash.

Sounds bad, but it gets worse. Your work is gruelling and sometimes dangerous. You get a front seat at the theatre of human suffering. AND . . . you work shoulder to shoulder with people from other agencies who are loaded with state-of-the-art equipment, well paid, and who wouldn't dream of going to work off their shift.

I'm talking, of course, about volunteer firefighters. The strangest thing is that they like their "employers" (the public), for the most part. They volunteer because they want to help folks that are having a bad day.

While it's true that some volunteers are paid, and some have good equipment, and some work shifts and have time off, there are many, many that don't have any of these things.

Eventually, they toss in the towel. Some last long enough to retire at a ripe age (if you call a handshake and no pension "retirement"), but burnout is common. No one cares unless the whole crew gives notice at the same time, like the gals from Wandering River. Then all hell breaks loose. Thousands of people relied on them for years, without noticing when they responded at 2:00 AM, and without backing them when they asked for more resources. But when a bad piece of important highway suddenly became worse because the responders wouldn't go anymore, they received instant national attention. For a week at least.

The comment sections of the news stories intrigued me. While there was plenty of support, there were also plenty whose attitude was, "suck it up, this is what firefighters do." That may be, but fewer and fewer people are willing to "suck it up," and the ranks are growing thinner by the year.

It's funny, you don't hear about police departments or ambulance services packing it in for lack of support and new recruits. And no one tells them to suck it up and volunteer because that is what cops and paramedics do. Money isn't everything, but it sure does help.

Wandering River is on the even farther flung peripheral edge of the universe than Upsala is, but they are on a main artery that serves the very bullseye centre of the western world's universe - the oil industry - which may force the world to take notice. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. If I were a prophet, I would prophesy that the next generation living in the 80% of Canada's landmass served by volunteers will be even less willing to suck it up, and that their "employers" will be forced to reckon with that fact, or go without service.

But I'm not a prophet, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

ghost calls, import biz, overworked volunteers,

Last week it was ghost moose, this week it's ghost fires. Our reactions were unanimous this morning when the pagers went off with a report of a brush fire 2 km west of Upsala:

"Brush fire? It rained enough last night to drown a frog in scuba gear."

But we're the fire department. We don't get to ask questions. Like the Light Brigade, 'ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die.' So we went on another wild goose chase in search of the elusive wildland fire. We didn't find it, although we did see a few wisps of fog in the general area. Like usual, my wild imagination gets the better of me, and I muse about the Good Samaritan that called it in:

Good Samaritan 1: Hey, look at that wispy, cloudy stuff coming out of that swamp. Do you think it's smoke?

Good Samaritan 2: It's been raining for a week, but it could be . . . what d'ya say we stop and check it out. You know, make sure it isn't fog or something.

Good Samaritan 1: Naw, too dangerous. Besides, we'll get our shoes wet in all that standing water. Better call the fire department. They've got rubber boots.

Good Samaritan 2: Maybe we should at least slow down to get a better look . . .

Good Samaritan 1: Nope. Even Good Samaritans have to get on with their lives. I'll just use my trusty cell phone . . . hey, is that a moose back there in the wispy, cloudy, swampy haze? Better call twice. You never know, someone might hit it . . .

Click here to read about a wild goose chase that we declined to pursue. I guess we do get to reason why (or why not) sometimes.


You may remember that we broke our Amkus spreader last summer, and had to ship it away for repairs. In order to avoid the chaos of finding a replacement in the event of future breakdowns, we purchased another used set of Amkus tools, which I brought across the border today. Normal people hire a broker to import their stuff, but I'm not normal, and I wanted to save the brokerage fees, so I did the paperwork myself. Or at least, sort of did it myself. Here's how it went:

Very Nice Customs Guy: Do you have anything to declare?

Me: Not much, Just ten thousand dollars worth of equipment.

VNCG: Do you have all of the proper documents for importing?

Me: Um, yes sir [gee, I hope our import number on a blank sheet of paper is 'proper documents' enough . . .]

VNCG: Let's see. Um, that's all you have? Well then, are you familiar with the codes and other data to enter into the program on our computer?

Me: Yes. I mean no. Actually, I did it once about ten years ago with a lot of help from another really nice customs guy . . .

VNCG: You're supposed to do this yourself . . . [helpless, deer-in-headlights look from me] . . . but seeing you're from the fire department, I'll give you a hand.

Twenty minutes later I meekly walked out with a bundle of papers and some hand-scrawled notes about F2 and Country of Origin for future forays into the mystical world of customs brokers. Maybe next time I'll be able to do it myself.


Here is another article on the continued saga of Wandering River. I'll probably have more comments on this later. For now, I hope Canada's leaders stir from their slumbering ignorance of the personal cost that volunteers have borne, and wake up to the fact that the flimsy thread of support in small communities has reached its breaking point.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

of cat rescues and research grants

I advanced a step further in my research on cat rescues. Bill from Thunder Bay, who is a true and genuine firefighter, said he rescued a cat that had been in a tree for four days. That doesn't mean that Frank from Fort Frances (who is also a true and genuine firefighter) was wrong when he said he'd never seen a cat skeleton in a tree, but it does lend a modicum of credence to the theory that they have trouble descending upon occasion.

I don't understand how cats get themselves in these fixes in the first place. There are plenty of humans that don't like heights, and who would need rescued if they got stuck in a tree, but they are about as likely to climb one as rappel the CN tower. So why does an acrophobic cat climb trees? Is is a dare from the local alley cats? A stunt to attract the attention of the neighbourhood harem? A simple case of a feline facing its fears?

I can see a scientific study developing here. Maybe I should apply for a grant.


I'm falling asleep at the keyboard. I just got home from a weekend of instructing and cajoling and stretching firefighters beyond their already contorted comfort zones. Up and down stairs, in and out of ink-black smoke, nose to nose with fire, nailed to the hot seat of incident command. An exotic weekend getaway that few care to indulge in.
What other breed of people take a day off work - plus give up their weekend - to sweat and slave and roast and endure abuse from a sadistic pack of instructors. A few of the students will use this as a stepping stone toward job aspirations, but by far the biggest stated reason for taking the course was, "I want to help people."

I continue to harp my twangy tune that volunteer firefighters are undervalued. The federal and provincial governments are more inclined to award grants to study feline psychology than invest a reasonable amount of money in the fire service. Wandering River Fire Department (Alberta) recently decided that they couldn't take the pressure anymore and withdrew their service. It appears that the local residents have stepped up to the plate, and service will resume later this month, but with a reduced coverage area.

Care for our communities is our Achilles heel . . . and our governments know it. It's rare for a department to call it quits. It goes against the grain. Ingenuity and determination are the pillars of our service. As long as we're willing to make do, and innovate, and work harder with fewer people, things will continue as they are.

The philosopher bug has bitten me. I feel the urge to conduct a study on the fatal tendency of firefighters to prop up service even though we know that the purse string holders will use our commitment against us at budget time. It's kind of like acrophobic cats climbing trees even though they know they're terrified of heights.

It's a long shot, but perhaps there is enough of a correlation there to convince someone to give me a grant . . .

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

the cat lives on

Frank from Fort Frances offered a useful piece of information the other day. He told me that in all his many years as a firefighter, he's never seen a cat skeleton in a tree. This is good news and bad news.

The good news is that I have ammunition (figuratively speaking) to handle the next cat call. In fact, I'm already rehearsing my "say no to cats" speech:

"I know you are concerned about poor Fifi ma'am, but let me assure you that there is no scientific evidence to prove that cats ever die in trees."

The bad news is that now I feel like an idiot. After many years of soul-searching, I finally resolved the question of whether we should respond to cat-in-tree incidents. I took the plunge, made the fateful decision, set a precedent. I rescued a cat, only to learn that, ultimately, they always figure how to get down by themselves, without any help from intrepid firefighters. It shows once again the need for doing a proper risk/benefit analysis before committing resources. I hereby return to my original position: Just say no to cats in trees. Period. Really, I mean it this time.

At least until the next distraught cat lover calls, and I wonder why we have those ladders on the trucks if we rarely use them, and maybe Frank just never saw the cat skeletons up there, and did he actually climb every single tree in Fort Frances, and if not, how did he prove his theory, and, and . . .

I'd better put a little more work into that risk analysis . . .


I'm team-teaching the very first Volunteer Module A course to be held at Thunder Bay Protective and Emergency Services Training Centre (affectionately called PEST) this weekend. I may get another post in tomorrow evening, but no promises.

simply commanding

I've neglected my education. It's a terrible thing for a fire chief to admit, but they say that confession is good for the soul, so here goes: I've never read "Fire Command" by Alan Brunacini.

Before the judge, jury, and executioner descend upon me, I hasten to add that I've attended gobs of incident command courses, most of them based on (retired) Chief Brunacini's doctrine. Over the years though, I've felt a certain lack . . . like I missed an important initiation rite into the mystical world of Incident Management. So I bit the bullet and ordered a copy of Fire Command for the Upsala Fire Department library, and now I'm filling in the holes of my incident management training. Here are my early observations about the book:

  • it's white, with a big picture of Command standing on a pedestal composed of Command doctrine books

  • there are no black, burned hog fuel stains on Command's white shirt

  • Command is surrounded by mad chaos in cartoon form

  • Command has that "I'm focused, I'm in charge, I'm cool" look, that I so wish I could perfect on the fire ground
As you can see, the cover made a huge impression on me. I did actually start reading the book though, and am currently enjoying the introduction. Here are my early observations about the content:
  • the book has lots and lots of pages (shudder)

  • the pages aren't numbered (probably so ADHD firefighters like me won't try to figure out how many there really are)

  • Brunacini has an annoying fascination with parenthesis (and so do I, by the way)

  • he is blunt, down to earth, and funny (he's my hero)

  • he has experience wearing filthy turnouts (so do I)

  • he had the good fortune of knowing a talented cartoonist, and the savvy to use him on every page (I'm still working on that one)

  • Brunacini knows the ultimate secret of writing for free societies: if we don't want to read it, we won't read it

  • he makes me want to read every one of those many, many pages (shudder)
I'm not saying that I have much in common with the guru of IMS, even though my twisted, manipulative writer-ramble seems to imply that. However, Brunacini did adapt the complex Californian FIRESCOPE model to the basic, everyday, bread and butter, structural fire world. Perhaps I could adapt it one step further and write my own book:

Fire Command In the Peripheral Edge of the Universe
A two-bit fire chief's perspective on managing chaos with three people

If you want to read Fire Command, you can get your very own copy here. No, I'm not getting a commission, but I really, really wish I was. And by the way, I do believe that Chief Brunacini earned his rightful spot as the guru of IMS.


Tis the season for ghost calls. Somebody, somewhere on Highway 17 hit a moose the other night. I don't know where it happened, but I do know for sure that it didn't happen by the English River bridge, even though we were paged at 02:43 to that very location for a van vs moose collision.

It isn't the dispatcher's fault that five firefighters had to leave their warm beds to go on a 50 km wild goose chase, but it sure would be nice to blame somebody. It seems heartless to blame the poor folks that hit the moose, so allow me to theorize about the Good Samaritan that called it in:

Cell Phone Samaritan: Hello? Is this 911?

Dispatcher: Yes, what is your emergency?

Cell Phone Samaritan: Some dude hit a moose.

Dispatcher: What is your location?

Cell Phone Samaritan: Um, let's see . . . I think I'm somewhere between Winnipeg and Toronto . . . what's this road called again . . . oh yeah, I'm on the Trans Canada Highway.

Dispatcher: Um, that's a pretty big area . . . can you narrow it down?

Cell Phone Samaritan: Narrow it down? Are you kidding? I'm out here in God's country! I've seen nothing but trees for hours. Wait, there's a bridge . . . it says "English River."

Dispatcher: We'll send help right away. Thank you.

Cell Phone Samaritan (closes his phone): Gee, I wonder if I should have told them that I drove for two hours before I got enough signal to call it in . . . nah, they'll figure it out.

Hopefully, they did.

Friday, June 4, 2010

a chain of favours

I haven't posted in over a week. You already know that, and aren't interested in my list of excuses (which, by the way, is as long as the TransCanada Highway), so I'll dive right in like I never missed a beat.


A number of years ago, a burning boxcar full of railroad ties arrived in Upsala. We were dispatched to put the fire out because that is what firefighters do when they aren't rescuing irate cats from trees. We found out later that another department (whose identity will remain secret) had already "extinguished" the fire, but it somehow started burning again between there and here . . .

Fast forward to last week, when I was pondering the chain of command . . . and favours. It was early morning, about 2:00 AM, and I was pulling charred hog fuel out of a chainsawed hole in the side of a tractor trailer. Hog fuel is shredded leftover bark and wood fibre that is burned at mills to generate steam and electricity. This load had the bad karma to catch fire prematurely on our piece of highway. Hog fuel is stubborn and unyielding to shovel, so we cut through the side of the trailer and pulled the burning mess out with pike poles. Our yellow turnout gear was black, our gloves oozed with slimy ash, and our faces were soot magnets. And throughout all this bad karma, I was thinking about the chain of command. And favours.

In normal departments that are closer to the centre of the universe, the Incident Commander is at the top of the chain, in crisp, white turnouts. He or she sits comfortably in a Suburban, dictating notes about strategy and tactics and agent applied and benchmarks. Captains pass orders down the chain to the hot, dirty, action-packed firefighter level where the real work is done. But all is calm and cool in the command post.

In Upsala though, things are different. If you had driven by at 2:00 AM last week, you would have seen three helmets working that fire, one yellow, one red, and one white. All three were worn by tired guys in filthy turnouts. That's the way it works on the peripheral edge of the universe, at least some of the time. "Command" might be just a fancy name for the guy that calls the shots and wears the blame while he's trying not to get tunnel vision from his perspective at the end of a pike pole.

I was pondering the deeper meaning of the chain of command because I had just finished teaching a two-weekend course on Incident Management. The text books make a fire scene appear neat and tidy and precise and organized. There is nothing neat or tidy or precise about burning hog fuel, but at least we were moderately organized . . . a three link chain doesn't tangle very easily.

I was also pondering favours. The good thing about being the Incident Commander, even a soot covered peripheral one, is that you get to make executive decisions.

The tow truck operator asked if the fire was out. I knew better than to say yes - if you've ever worked a hog fuel fire, you know the only final solution is to spread the whole mess out on the ground - but since the police wanted the load off the highway, and since Incident Commanders are supposed to dream up innovative solutions to stubborn problems, I said . . .

"It might not be out, but you can take it anyway. You should make it to the next fire department's territory (whose identity remains secret) before it catches fire again. You see, I owe them a favour . . .

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