Thursday, January 27, 2011

Statistically Stretched

According to my scientific calculations, volunteer firefighters respond to 97% of the emergencies that occur on Highway 17 between Ottawa and the Manitoba border. Don't say it. The idea of me making scientific calculations is funnier than a chimpanzee doing calculus, but I hasten to add that I actually exerted a little effort this time, unlike my usual research methods that rely completely on the shameless fabrication of facts.

The distance from Ottawa to the Manitoba border is 2000 km (for my US friends, that's 1242 miles). About 60 of those kilometres pass through the cities of North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay, which are served by career firefighters. The other 1940 kilometres are covered by either volunteer or composite departments. Put differently, it would take three eight hour days to drive across Ontario, according to MapQuest. Less than one hour of that time would be spent in areas with full time departments.

Of course the collision rates might be higher in urban areas, which would skew my 97% a bit, but no matter how you slice it, a big chunk of this big province is served by volunteers. I'm working on a similar "study" of the Trans Canada Highway from Glace Bay to Vancouver, and have gotten as far as figuring out that Canada is about 6000 km wide (yeah, you geography geeks have known that since first grade). Hopefully I'll finish the study before my scientific energy burns itself out. Alternately, if anyone knows of an accurate statistic that lists the urban centres along the Trans Canada, and is willing to send me a link, I would love to avoid all of that study and brain strain.

[Side note: Scientific study has it's drawbacks, chief of which is the effort required to build an intelligent theory. I much prefer blogging, which permits the writer to make up facts on the fly.]

Incidentally, according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, 91% of Canadian communities are covered by volunteers. The flip side of that statistic is that 80% of Canada's population lives in urban areas that make up the remaining 9% of our communities. 91% of our communities are served by 20% of our population. No wonder the volunteer service is stretched to the breaking point.

Wow. I'm exhausted from all this statistical research, even though most of the figuring was done by someone else.

On the lighter side, but still the same topic, Paul Combs hits the bullseye in his most recent cartoon.

By the way, did you know that 87.2% of Canadians are bored by statistics?

(I made that up)

Friday, January 21, 2011


Weather is one of my favourite things to complain about, along with politicians, terrorists and dough brained 911 callers. While the other three have satiated my inner urge to criticize all things crazy this past year (click here, here and here), the weather has not. Last winter was so mild that only a Saharan camel teleported to Northwestern Ontario could have found something to gripe about. This year has been "normal" so far, whatever that means, so we shouldn't complain when January acts like it normally does in the peripheral edge of the universe. Here's Upsala at -38:

If that sounds cold, believe me it is. I'm glad I dug out my Upsala Hydrant yesterday, instead of today. And I hope I don't have to actually use it, at least until April. Defying nature by trying to make water flow at forty degrees below zero is never fun.

It is cold here, by most people's definition, but not as cold as Baker Lake, which had a high of -42 today and projected low of -48 tomorrow. You may recall that I tried to theorize that Upsala was the middle of somewhere, but proved instead that it really is the middle of nowhere. In the process, I discovered that Baker Lake is the geographic centre of Canada. I'm still glad I don't live there, by the way.

Then there is Victoria, BC, which had a high of 9 today. And it's in Canada. How is this possible?

On a totally different topic, I found a writer/firefighter over at the Rescue 1 site that I'm going to keep an eye on. Check out his view on nosy neighbours.

Monday, January 17, 2011

More Yin Yang

The English River-Raith-Upsala Force Field Effect (henceforth known as ERRUFFE) has spread its tentacles into the new year. My research shows that the increase in traffic collisions is due to magnetic hyper activity caused by a cosmic collision between Aurora Borealis and El Nino. The resulting gamma rays triangulate through the ice crystals that form over the swamps around Upsala, and cause erratic traffic behaviour.

The great thing about having sole ownership of a blog, is that you get to fabricate scientific research on the spot, without the usual decades of hard work. Be that as it may, the dark side of winter continues to crop up. To counteract the the quasi-Bermuda Triangle effect of ERRUFFE, I recommend attaching a row of rare earth magnets across the hood of your car. Alternately, you could get plenty of rest, focus on the road, and avoid driving in blizzards. Slowing down has been proven to counter the effects of ERRUFFE as well. Whatever method you choose, drive safely out there and wear your seat belt. You don't want to see the dark side of winter.

On the bright side of winter, Phillip turned 16 on Sunday. He celebrated by inviting his friends over to build a quinzhee.

Here are the girls working hard inside . . .

. . . and the boys pretending to work hard on the outside.

Also on the bright side, Phillip has joined the Upsala Fire Department. Due to a special agreement with the Office of the Fire Marshal (and our desperate need for firefighters), 16 year olds can join under special conditions.
As you can see, he was brainwashed from an early age.

We need all the help we can get out here in the peripheral edge of the universe. . .

Friday, January 14, 2011

More Reportable Shortcomings, and other unrelated topics

Reports are like the moon: they reflect energy that is expended elsewhere. Reports don't paint a complete picture of reality, but they at least provide a measure of enlightenment to the poor souls in government who are stuck in the lunar dimness of bureaucracy.

What the heck was that all about? What I meant to say, was that reports have their place. The watchdogs that monitor us are so busy reading and writing their own reports that they have little idea what actually happens out here in the far-flung peripheral edge of the universe. So they settle for a paper mirror that reflects reality. Fair enough.

[Side note: It might be simpler just to hang surveillance cameras around our necks so we can be monitored in true Big Brotherly style. Not a perfect solution, but it would save a few million trees each year.]

Reports also provide a record for those that will follow in our footsteps. When I was hired nearly 15 years ago, accurate historical training data was as scarce as common sense on Parliament Hill. Individual personnel files didn't exist. The outgoing chief laughed when I asked if I could see a roster. Not a good omen. One bureaucratic glance at our malnourished file cabinet implied that little had been done in the past eight or nine years. While I knew that wasn't true, I also knew the four laws of reporting (see previous post). My first job was to lasso the information dragon, wrestle him to the ground, and hog tie him with an accurate reporting system.

Fifteen years later, I wonder who has hog tied who.

It's no coincidence that volunteer departments in this area can rarely hang onto a chief longer than five years. I would have been gone long ago if the only pay was an occasional pat on the back.

It's also no coincidence that reporting deficiencies make the bureaucratic watchdogs howl like wolves. A few months ago they mailed me a snarly letter stating that my SCBA fit testing stats were unacceptable. I had 18 firefighters, the letter said, and only 9 of them were fit tested. Hmmm. Not good. Except that 5 of those firefighters were no longer on the department. Of the 13 that were left, one was a non-SCBA wearing scribe who didn't need a fit test because she only operated a pen. One was a new recruit that didn't have a pager. I still had a meager 9 fit tested firefighters . . . but only 2 non-fit tested renegades.

The strange thing about this story is that the above explanation made everything okay. It didn't make my firefighting reality any better, but it satisfied the moon-watching report readers. All I had to do was rearrange the dismal facts in a different format.

On a different topic, you can read my January column here. If you have a good high speed connection and want to see the fancy online magazine version, click here and scroll to page 54.

On yet another unrelated tangent, I received a request from Matthew Phillips to write a guest post on my blog. I'm skittish about spammers, and while he didn't sound like one, I'm naive and might not know a spammer from a spelunker.

(Come to think of it, what do spammers sound like, anyway? Do they announce themselves as they barge into your personal blogger space? "Hello. I'm a spammer, and I'm here to choke the life out of your miserable excuse for cyber literature.")

Uneducated though I am, he didn't sound like the type, so I sent an email asking if I could see some of his work. He didn't reply. I did a Google search. There are millions of people named Matthew Phillips. Maybe he was a spammer, hiding under an innocent sounding pseudonym. Maybe I had blown his cover. Should I be on the lookout for a cyber terrorist attack?

A couple days ago, an informative piece on the dangers of asbestos appeared on Hydrantgirl's blog. It was a guest post from . . . . Matthew Phillips. You can read the post here.

I think it's time to hang up my Sherlock Holmes Internet Detective hat.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reportable Shortcomings

Reports. The enemy of productivity, the glory of bureaucrats, the nemesis of time-strapped fire chiefs. Reports alternately keep the wheels of government oiled, or bog them down with useless information. If the world dissolved into chaos, all would still be well in the insular bastions of bureaucracy as long as the proper reports continued to roll in with t's crossed and i's dotted.

[Side note 1: The the great thing about typed reports is that the i's dot themselves. My inner rebel chafes at dotting i's].

Bureaucracy hangs precariously on four reporting principles:
  1. If it wasn't written down, it didn't happen.

  2. If it was written down improperly, it didn't happen.

  3. If it was written down properly but on the wrong form, it didn't happen.

  4. THEREFORE, writing things down properly on the right form is the most important task in the world.

[Side note 2: Rules 1-3 only apply when you do things right. When you do something wrong, the bloodhounds will prove that it DID happen, regardless of whether you report it or not].

It's no wonder governments can't get anything done. Once elected, they barely finish signing all those hordes of proper papers before they get voted out and the next guy has to start all over again.

Fire department reports come in a mishmash of flavours: Manually typed reports. Computer generated reports. Hand scribbled reports. Incident reports. Collision Response reports. Inspection reports. Equipment reports. Vehicle checklist reports. Compliance reports. Mutual Aid reports. Check Up On My Reports reports.

Every time a truck rolls, every time we put water on fire, every time a firefighter learns something in training, a report must be filled out or no one believes that the event occurred. Then there are the reports that must be done simply because time has passed. Weekly reports. Monthly reports. The Dread Annual Report, which attempts to cram all other reports into one concisely overstuffed document.

Sometimes reportable events occur all at once. The trucks roll. Water is applied to fire. Firefighters train. The week, month, and year all end on the same day. For an office-impaired, secretary-less chief on the peripheral edge of the universe, crisis arrives. My desk attracts papers like a hoarder's lair attracts empty pizza cartons. Even a reporting delinquent like me knows it's time for serious action.

As a temporary solution, I ignore all that paper. Then I look sideways at the shredder, contemplating a more permanent fix. Another possible solution would be to cram it all into a box and shove it into some dark corner of the fire hall. Eventually I would run out of dark corners though, and I do have a conscience somewhere in the deep recesses of my being, so I take the high road. I spread all those half finished reports over every available flat surface so I can look the devil in the eye, then sort and organize and type and sign and file them all away where I'll never have to think about them again. I hope.

Of course there is always the chance that five and a half years from now, some lawyer or insurance agent or bureaucrat will phone and say, "Did you respond to such-and-such an incident on January 10, 2011? And I'll say, "How am I supposed to know?" And he or she will say, "Don't you have a highly organized file cabinet full of reports?" And I'll say, "Um yes, of course I do." (white lies are okay in crisis situations). And he or she will say, "Find the January 10 report on pain of cruel and unusual punishment." And when I find it three days later, I'll be glad that I took the high road to semi organization, five and a half years previous.

By the way, Cruel and Unusual Punishment in this case means being chained to a desk full of unfinished reports, while an endless soundtrack is piped into your windowless cubicle:

If you didn't write it down
Yeah, yeah, yeah
It didn't ever happen
Yeah, yeah, yeah

I'm breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it. I know what I'm doing first thing tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


If you owned a piece of cyber technology worth billions, what would you do with it? I'd ponder for about 30 seconds . . . then I'd sell it. I guess that's why I'm a two-bit, hand-to-mouth fire chief, and Mark Zuckerberg is the owner of Facebook, which is now reportedly worth 50 billion dollars.

My mind comprehends fifty billion dollars like a snowflake comprehends a blizzard. To put things in perspective, fifty billion would buy two hundred thousand fire trucks . . . or two million sets of heavy hydraulic extrication tools . . . or two hundred million pry axes. Or a real nice house by the beach with enough cash left over to live comfortably for several thousand years and still donate a few billion to help rebuild Haiti.

I just had a brainwave. When I become King of the World, I'll institute a Facebook tax. A mere 1% of the Internet giant's gross value per year. I'd put the $500 million toward . . . you guessed it . . . the ailing volunteer fire service.

Go ahead and say it. I'd make a better court jester than accountant.

Just for fun, here's a quick snapshot of two parallel careers:

  • In 1984, at the age of 22, I co-founded a logging partnership with a friend and started a new era in my life.
  • In 1984, Mark Zuckerberg was born, and started a new era in his life.
  • Over the next 20 years I logged, gallivanted in the Far East, logged again, began a family, and eventually secured a semi-sensible job as a fire chief.
  • Mark Zuckerberg spent his next 20 years messing around on computers, then founded Facebook.
  • I graduated from the Ontario Fire College with a Company Officer Diploma.
  • Mark Zuckerman dropped out of Harvard.
  • My mission in life is to raise two good kids, and retire before I'm 90.
  • Mark Zuckerberg's mission in life is to make the world open.
  • I live in a rented house and drive an 11 year old Toyota.
  • Mark Zuckerberg lives in a rented apartment and drives a 50 billion dollar company.

Our careers are sort of parallel. I had a 22 year head start, and now I'm running parallel in the opposite direction. And I thought writing about the decline of volunteerism was depressing.

If you want to read more about my history, click here. If you want to read more about Zuckerberg's history, click here and here, or Google him for about 8,000,000 other sites.

Here's an interesting piece of trivia: the Blogger spell check doesn't recognize Zuckerberg or Facebook. I'm not the only one behind the times.

Wow. I've really strayed off the straight and narrow. In my own defense, I did try to use the old "King of the World" tactic to wrangle this recalcitrant post back to my chosen theme of firefighting, but it only slowed the downward spiral. Time to toss in the towel and call it a night.

After I check my Facebook page.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year

Laying on the couch is easier than playing hide and seek with my inner literary genius. That was the revelatory discovery I made during my blogging holiday (not that I've been laying on the couch since December 24 . . . honest). But now that the holidays are over, my inner literary genius continues to elude me, and the couch continues to call. The only fix is to type, and hope that something intelligible appears on the screen. So here goes.

Upsala Fire Department has a well kept tradition of attending crashes and fires on either New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. Out here on the Far Flung Peripheral Edge of the Universe, we only average between 2 and 3 calls a month, so when a particular date consistently yields a page out or two, we notice.

2010 started out as a record breaking quiet year. Except for a rash of forest fires between April and early June, things stayed slow right up to the middle of November. Then all hell broke loose . . . relatively speaking. If you live in Thunder Bay or Toronto or Los Angeles, 12 calls in 5 weeks is hardly "all hell," but it's at least four times Upsala's monthly average. The streak ended on Christmas Eve (another traditionally busy day).

On New Year's Eve, our call tally for the year was 29. I was uneasy because the fire gremlins like round numbers, but midnight rolled around and the pagers stayed quiet. We weren't awakened at 4:00 AM on New Years morning either, which is another popular time for holiday induced mishaps. New Year's Day ended uneventfully, and tradition was broken. Perhaps 2011 would be another quiet year . . . except that at 01:33 on January 2 we were paged to a vehicle crash east of Upsala. Leave it to the gremlins to act an hour and a half late, just to keep us on our toes.

Speaking of holiday activity, this volunteer crew in New Jersey logged a 67 hour shift. We've done up to 27 hour calls, with some firefighters staying through to the end, but never 67 hours. There are many reasons why you shouldn't work that long, and I'm sure that the Ministry of Labour can (and does) list them in painful detail upon request. But it's hard to say to your neighbour, "Sorry, we're short handed and exhausted, so we'll come back to rake up what's left of your house tomorrow morning." So we stay, and catch up on our sleep later.

This video has made the rounds, and you may have seen it already, but I need to draw your attention away from our unethical overworking policy with an example of why you should always wear your SCBA at any fire:

It's always easier to throw stones at someone else, so while we're on the topic of bashing firefighters, check out Paul Combs' newest cartoon. Everyone does stupid things once in a while. The problem with public service - even thankless, payless public service - is that our stupid things grab the world's attention.

Lest you think I'm a heartless, Scroogey, firefighter basher, here is a cool video that someone passed along last week, called Santa's Fire Truck.

To finish off this disjointed tumble into 2011, here is a New Year's Haiku (Thanks Brian for unknowingly tweaking my inner oriental awareness):

The New Year has come
Banish absurd brainlessness
The world is watching

Happy New Year, take a break when you can, and wear your SCBA at every fire!

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