Friday, September 24, 2010

You'd think a guy who writes a blog for fun wouldn't mind writing reports. Or letters to politicians. Or replies to snarky bureaucrats. But I don't like doing any of those things.

Take the infamous Incident Report for example. I'm not allowed to say things like, "The velvet black sky reflected the golden hue of flames reaching toward the Northern Lights as they consumed the quaint little cottage by the shimmering lake." Yeah, that's sappy and it sounds like the Northern Lights are consuming the cottage, but it's better than the cold, dry, factual jargon required in the world of reporting. Like, "the roof collapsed at 02:13 hrs," or "the crash scene was stabilized at 23:39" or "we established water supply at 13:06 hrs." Reports demand simple, boring statements that tell a simple devastating story.

Sigh. I hate writing reports.

[Side note: Maybe that's why they pile up on my desk until (in an apoplectic report-writing fit) I lock myself in the office and attack them like a rabid wolf on crystal meth.]

Then there is the politician letter. I'm working on a couple of those right now. It would be fun to say, "You idiots are so out of touch that you can't tell a volunteer firefighter from a moose." But that kind of letter doesn't get results. You have to say things like, "We understand the budgetary restraints that accompany the current economic climate, but we hope you agree that the essential role firefighters play in public safety is deserving of more resources than are currently allocated." That kind of talk won't get results either, but at least it isn't as rude as saying "idiot" and "moose."

Sigh. I hate writing politician letters.

The snarky bureaucrat letter is the worst. These guys are driven by paper and statistics and numbers that rarely reflect what is actually happening on the ground. Letters to bureaucrats have to take this into account, and the writer must at least attempt to sound like he or she wants to look good on paper . . . because looking good on paper is all-important to the average bureaucrat. Saying "idiot" and "moose" to bureaucrats isn't a good idea either, by the way. I tried it once a number of years ago (for the record, I didn't use those actual words, but they were indicated in the tone). Months went by and there was no response. Finally, I bumped into the said bureaucrat at a conference. "Why didn't you respond to my letter?" I say. "Letter? What letter?" he says.

Sigh. I hate writing bureaucrat letters too. But with the advent of email communication, somebody has to stimulate the ailing Northwestern Ontario paper industry.

political addiction

Politics and alcohol are uncannily similar to me. It only takes a sip or two of either to make me sick to my stomach. Perhaps a decade and a half of firefighting has conjured my pragmatic side, or perhaps I was born politically challenged, but either way I can't stomach the ring-around-the-rosie antics that often pass for good government.

Firefighters, especially ones in the peripheral edge of the universe, live down-to-earth, solution driven lives. We are programmed to hit the floor at 2:00 AM in response to a buzzing pager that demands we instantly wake up and respond to Armageddon with our squirt guns and a Handy Andy tool kit. We stagger into the fire hall decked in pajamas and sweatshirts, change into our ragtag Superman costumes, and pile into a motley array of wheeled vehicles. We respond, never knowing for sure what we'll find when we get there.

You've probably seen cartoons of thimble-sized firefighters facing elephant-sized dragons. That's what it feels like sometimes. If we can't run our trusty lances through the heart of the beast, we know we have to at least figure out a way to hold him at bay until he dies of old age. The bottom line: we don't go home until the situation is resolved. That's a great incentive to find solutions.

Political gladiators, on the other hand, have to play cat-and-mouse games to survive. They attack a gun registry dragon, knowing that if they can't kill it they'll at least score political points for the next election. They're scared to allow their minions to vote their conscience unless their conscience mirrors the party line. They don't want a workable solution as much as they want to win the next round of political blackjack. Parliament degenerates into a crew of firefighters that hose each other down, instead of putting precious water on the burning house.

[side note: when I'm King of the World, I will require that every politician serve a year as a volunteer firefighter before running for office (as mentioned in my October 2008 column). I would accept a few rounds in a fundraising dunk tank as a possible alternative].

I don't say that politics is bad. In fact, like red wine, a little is good for the heart. Normal people - even if they are politicians - know to use politics discreetly. It's okay to enjoy a glass or two at election time. Maybe even get a little tipsy while you debate it with your friends. Just don't drink the whole vat while you're trying to steer the ship of our country.

Then there are guys like Mr. Ahmadinejab who act like they've injected straight whiskey intravenously. If he were anything but the semi-legitimate president of a country, he'd have been locked up in rehab years ago. Or dead from political alcohol poisoning.

The problem with political addiction is that truth takes a back seat to agenda. Even in less extreme cases, solutions take a back seat to political posturing. Maybe it has to be that way, but I can feel the nausea welling in the pit of my stomach.

Time for a virtual cup of coffee. Paul Combs new book Drawn By Fire is available September 30. Check out his artwork while you're at the site, and pre order the book here. The first 100 orders get a signed copy. No, I'm not getting a commission, but I really wish I was. I gotta write a book some day . . .

More virtual coffee, or at least a cyber soft drink: here is the article I wrote for New Horizons to promote our calendar fundraiser.

To finish off our line of refreshments, here's a story about Fidel Castro, a political junkie if ever there was one. I don't know if he's truly had a change of heart in his old age . . . or secretly embraced counterrevolutionary ideologies all along and just couldn't bear to admit it . . . or has some obscure political agenda up his sleeve. That's the problem with trying to formulate an intelligent opinion about politics. It's impossible to know.

Hmmm. I think there is still an old bottle of Kahlua on the shelf. Maybe if I had a Brown Cow it would all make sense . . .

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

One last party

A myth circulates in firefighter gossip-land that, many years ago, I got drunk on White Russians. While this tale of alleged intemperance may contain a microscopic kernel of truth (I did, in fact, consume a drink or two that contained Kahlua and milk), the facts have been distorted over the years. For instance, I did not dance on any tables that night in Hornepayne. Honest.

In spite of the wildly inaccurate stories that emerged from that era, it was the golden age of training in Northwestern Ontario. The Fire College had recently launched the Northern Campus, the demand for training had grown by leaps and bounds, and we had a cadre of incredible instructors that included Andrew from Toronto, and Graham from Atikokan.

Fast forward to the present. The Ontario government has ditched programs like a foundering ship ditches cargo during a hurricane. The College is increasingly reluctant to pay airfares for instructors from the South. Courses have been cancelled to the point that we wonder if the ship will still be afloat at this time next year.

One bright spot in the gloom is that the College agreed to fly Andrew to Thunder Bay for Fire Con, Northwestern Ontario's one and only fire conference. Graham was also there, after a one-year hiatus. With live fires, search and rescue training, and classes filled to capacity, it was almost like the old days again.

In keeping with ancient tradition, we went out for dinner and drinks the last night of the conference. I sipped my Pepsi and looked around the table. We certainly were an enigmatic group. Andrew is a Toronto fire captain who uses vacation time to train volunteer firefighters in the North, in spite of the long hours and lousy pay. DJ is an employee of a bureaucracy (which technically makes him a bureaucrat) who actually cares about his job. Graham is a British national who spent most of his youth in Spain, and somehow ended up in Atikokan, which is about as near the peripheral edge of the universe as you can get. Two young ladies, a former fire training student and her sister, completed the group. I would say that they were the most normal ones at the table, but the fact that they spent the whole evening with us of their own volition suggests otherwise.

Then there was me. A full time chief of a volunteer department who drinks Pepsi while everyone else drinks wine and beer and vodka. Perhaps it's the strangeness of my own personality that makes me feel like I fit in just a little with this wonderfully eccentric group.

As the evening progressed, the veneer of normalcy crumbled off our our inner quirkiness. If I could remember half of the bizarre topics we passed around the table, I'd have a year's worth of blog material prepackaged and ready to publish. When Graham started sticking beer bottles to the window frame, I knew that this party was right on track.

Don't bother asking how it's done. I believe it has something to do with friction, voodoo, and high blood alcohol levels. If you really want to know, you'll just have to come out to dinner with us sometime.
When Graham started sticking wine bottles to the wall - a historic first - everyone knew it was time to wind down. My friends ordered one last round, and suddenly realized that I hadn't had even a taste of anything stronger than a Pepsi. Andrew had the bright idea that we should relive the Hornepayne days.

"Come on Tim, have a White Russian."

"Nah, better not."

"Come on. This might be the last party."

The last party . . . it sounded so sad. But judging by the state of affairs in the Province, I couldn't argue the point. The waitress, pen and pad in hand, looked at me expectantly. Aw what the heck.

"Sure, I'll have a White Russian."

The drink appeared three minutes later. When I picked it up, cameras flashed like a paparazzi ambush. The stuff in the glass looked nothing like I remembered. I took a sip. It tasted nothing like I remembered. After some discussion, I realized that the Hornepayne myth was even less true than I had thought. I had ordered milk and Kahlua on that legendary night. A White Russian contains milk, Kahlua, and rum.

That explains why I didn't get drunk and dance on the tables. My Hornepayne drink was a Brown Cow, which sounds benign and innocent, not a White Russian, which sounds intoxicating and dangerous.

I took another sip of the real White Russian and remembered why I drink Pepsi and Coke. That strange, oogie feeling in my stomach is the same every time. I'm proud of myself though, because I made history that night. It took me so long to drink that White Russian that I ended up staying until closing time.

[Side note: If the photo looks a little blurry, it's because Andrew's camera phone had absorbed more than its legal limit from his incessant texting in between drinks.]

So the myth is put to rest at last. There was no table-top dance, no drunken party, not even a White Russian. Just a small herd of innocent Brown Cows.

At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Success, I think

Saturday morning, the big day, the Event. We had planned and organized, made phone calls, solicited sponsors, plotted the agenda, invited dignitaries . . . and of course worked with the Fire Within to get our calendar ready for sale. We had faith that Saturday, September 11 would dawn crisp and cool, a brilliantly sunny fall day. It would be a "come out and buy calendars" kind of day, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of eager supporters would swarm to the Stanley Hotel to support their local heroes, the volunteer firefighters.

I awoke to the sound of rain on the historic morning. Not a half-hearted, "sorry to disturb you" kind of rain, but buckets of "take that you crazy people who plan outdoor events in September" kind of rain. Worst of all, it was a "never mind calendars, everybody stay home and sandbag" kind of rain. I think the weather gremlins woke up and realized that, hey, we haven't had our quota of liquid sunshine for 2010, so let's just dump the whole reservoir in one day.

[Side note: Environment Canada had prophesied rain for Saturday since the beginning of the week. I figured we'd be fine. How was I supposed to know that they would make an accurate seven-day prediction for first time in history?]

One bright spot in the gloom was that Stanley lies about 120 kilometres southeast of Upsala. Perhaps, by some miracle, it would be sunny there. The bright spot evaporated an hour and a half later when I picked up the dunk tank, and water still fell from the sky.

By 10:00, the official opening time of the event, the gremlins began to show mercy. Alternately, they may have exhausted their supply of rain. It still wasn't a brilliantly sunny day, but at least we felt safe deflating the life rafts. People started to appear. Calendars started to disappear. One of the organizers conspired against the Neebing Deputy Chief's wife and collected $120 to guilt her into taking the first turn in the dunk tank. People began to sign the silent auction sheets. By noon, the sky and our spirits, had brightened considerably.

The politicians started to wander in around 1:00. Speeches, handshakes, and a moment of silence (in memory of 9/11 victims) briefly paused the activities. Yes, that's me with a microphone, exhorting anyone who would listen to buy a calendar and volunteer (which, incidentally, were the two main objectives of the project).

No event would be complete without a public education booth. Upsala manned this one, with help from Neebing and Oliver Paipoonge.

Thanks to the Ontario Fire Marshal for loaning us the Hazard House to teach young and old about fire safety.

Upsala shared a canopy with the clowns. Was that a not-so-subtle hint?

Here is John Rafferty, ready to take the plunge to support our fire departments.

And here he is taking the plunge. The water was cold, but not as cold as the polar bear plunge he takes in January.

John shunned the microphone, media cameras, and stage, preferring the dunk tank as his chosen platform from which to give encouraging words (and taunts to rally more shots at the target . . . ). He is an expert on dunk tanks, by the way. He has supported fire departments for years by taking the plunge. His comment about the one we rented from Shuniah? It's a high quality tank.

Someday when John Rafferty becomes Prime Minister, this photo will be worth a million bucks. Even if he doesn't become Prime Minister, I will always remember him as a guy who put his words into action at the expense of his person . . . and that is probably the highest compliment I could give a politician.

Here is me, with my son Phillip, doing time in the jail. Phillip's buddy managed to sell his three-calendar ransom first, and is gloating in the foreground.

Here is the Neebing chief, whipping the crowds into a frenzy of baseball throws to dunk MP Rafferty (actually, he's bribing a bunch of kids into participating, but I included this photo to prove that people did actually brave the elements and attend our event). I added five dollars to the pot and took two throws . . . and missed both times.

Was the event a success? It definitely wasn't a failure. We raised over $3000, half from calendar sales, the rest from the silent auction, dunk tank, and other activities. We still have about 400 calendars to sell, so if you want one, let me know. $20 gets you a piece of history, a nice calendar, and the satisfaction of knowing you helped three departments raise money for vital equipment.

A big thank you to the people on our team that, unlike me, don't hate thinking about money (if you're new to the show, and wonder why anyone would hate thinking about money, read my last post). Robert from Neebing garnered support from scores of businesses. Clara and her crew from Neebing Fire Rescue Association hammered out the fine organizational details and shouldered a lot of the financial stress. Both Neebing and Oliver Paipoonge supplied hordes of volunteers for the event. Thanks guys and gals!

For me, the real proof of success will be in the recruitment pudding. Every partner in a joint effort has a goal. My goal was publicity to encourage volunteerism. I think we already achieved some of the publicity part. Click here for a short news clip on the event. Also, the Chronicle Journal published a full-page article that I wrote for their New Horizons publication. It came out the day after the event, and circulated to 50,000 people. Maybe someone in that crowd will get the message and volunteer.

And that will be the real proof of the pudding.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

the root of all evil

I hate money. Or, more accurately, I hate thinking about money (clarification: I like having money - it's the thinking that gets me). I enjoy paying bills like most people enjoy a root canal. Paying bills requires you to look at the bigness (or smallness) of your account , then compare it to the bigness (never smallness) of the pile of bills on your desk. And during the whole, root canal-ish process, you have to think about money. Yuck.

When I'm King of the World, I will create a globally universal, worry-free finance Utopia. A heavenly paradise where people like me get to spend the money, and people like Alan Greenspan and Paul Martin get to figure out who owes what to whom.

[side note: it isn't that I hate Alan Greenspan or Paul Martin. Contrawise, I'd be assigning them their favourite job. They must like money or they would never have held ridiculous postions like Chairman of the Federal Reserve, or Finance Minister].

On second thought, I don't want the Alan Greenspans and Paul Martins of the earth poking their noses into my bank statement. I'd rather figure out for myself that there is more red than black there. But that requires thinking about money. Sigh. Yet another fabulous, king-of-the-world-sized idea that needs fine tuning.

This love-hate relationship with finance has weaseled its way into my work life. Firefighters are supposed to train and respond and manage. They don't need the distraction of money worries. But the difference between "supposed to be" and "really is", is about as wide as the gap between a Martin and a Beebe budget.

To close the gap a little, I had a brilliant idea that we would sell calendars this fall to raise money for equipment. It was going to be a simple affair with a few tables, 500 calendars, and thousands of people eagerly elbowing each other out of the way to get one before we sold out. The plan included very little money-thinking time.

Other partners in the scheme had different ideas though, and now we have a dunk tank, and games, and raffles, and prizes, and live bands, and politicians. Fortunately we also have people that think about money. All I have to do is chew my nails and not think about what happens if it rains and no one shows up, and we end the event with 494 calendars and no money.

Here's a random thought: why does an essential service have to run a calendar drive to raise money and awareness?

The Apostle Paul said the love of money is the root of all evil. Not to challenge the Good Book, I might suggest a parallel truth: care about money is the tree that sprouts from the root.

Stay tuned. The next entry will be about the success or failure of our first calendar event.

Monday, September 6, 2010

brushed off

First, the good news. I won't be gone every weekend until the middle of November this year. And that is good news. I like sleeping in on Saturday morning, and hanging out with my family, and not working a seven day work week.

The bad news is that the Fire College cancelled it's whole northern calendar for the rest of 2010. And that is bad news. I need the extra cash, and the volunteers won't get the training. The supposed reasons for the cut-back ranged from low attendance to revamping certain courses, but the real cause looks more like an empty budget.

Here's where I go into a tirade of kicking and screaming and sarcasm about imbecile governments that blow a billion dollars on a G8/G20 party (that accomplished who knows what), while an essential service is thrown to the wind like dust brushed off Stephen Harper's thousand dollar suit.

In fairness, I don't know how much Stephen Harper's suits cost. Neither can I honestly state that I know what our prime minister cares about. I do know that he doesn't care much about the dust he brushes off his suit. And it is equally as certain that small volunteer fire departments have been brushed off by our government.

Again in fairness, I can't blame the brush-off entirely on Stephen Harper. Provincial and municipal governments share responsibility as well. But look at it this way: at a fire scene, if a captain or a firefighter screws up while I'm in command, the blame lands in my lap, fair or not. I didn't make those rules, and I definitely don't like them (yet another matter for me to fix when I become King of the World) but for now, that is the way the game is played.

It's okay though. Our calendar launch is Saturday, and MP John Rafferty has agreed to take a turn in the dunk tank wearing a Stephen Harper mask. Revenge will be sweet and mostly futile.

It won't be entirely futile though. We will make a little money to supplement the lack of government support. And if the NDP comes to power before Rafferty's suit dries, we firefighters should get better treatment. Wet dust is hard to brush off.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Summer, Snow, and Sundries

Summer is slipping away like a greased pig on on water skis. As the curly tail of warm weather is sucked toward the howling mouth of fall and winter, I snatch as many opportunities to fish and boat and campfire as possible (I know, campfire is not a verb).

[Side note: bad similes, lame metaphors, and poor grammar are side effects of the virtual medication I took to treat the Digital Doldrums. Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease. Now back to our irregularly scheduled blogcast . . .]

Idealistically, we'll get a couple months of beautiful warm fall weather. Realistically, we'll break out the snow shovels at least a few times in October, maybe even once in September.

Ugh. Snow in September. If I believed in jinxes and bad luck, I would delete that sentence, run Norton, and burn my laptop at the stake. But I won't because I'm not superstitious. In three weeks when I moan about tunneling to my car after the first blizzard of the season, you can say, "I told you so."

Twice when I was out making the most of what's left of summer, my pager went off for no apparent reason. The first time I phoned dispatch like the diligent fire chief that I'm supposed to be. The second time, I recognized it for what it was: a phantom page. You've heard me ramble about ghost moose and ghost fires and phantom buildings. Now I'm getting phantom page outs. If you think that's creepy (or even if you think it was just a quirky equipment malfunction, like it really was), there are people out there with weird kind of ESP that warns them when their pager is about to go off. I tried Googling "weird kind of ESP that warns you when your pager is about to go off," and didn't get any hits, so you'll just have to take my word for it that I did read about it happening to someone somewhere.

Speaking of weird things, check out this video of a fire tornado:

And speaking of weird and dangerous things, read this article about firefighters that were overcome by toxic smoke while outside a building. It makes you wonder about all the crap that we breathe, even when we think we're safely outside. Check out Paul Combs artistic view on smoke here.

I don't dedicate a lot of time on this site to firefighter injuries and fatalities , not because they aren't important, but because I'd rather laugh than cry. Besides, there are plenty of sites like Billy G's Firefighter Close Calls that do more justice to the topic than I would. If you haven't subscribed to the Secretlist yet, do it now and get ready to cry. Then go back to your hall and play safe with new knowledge you've gained.

Speaking of laughter, they do say that it's the best medicine, you know. Hmm . . . I'd better chuck that bottle of virtual meds that generates bad similes and lame metaphors . . .

Search This Blog