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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