Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Five more shopping days until the election. If you haven't chosen your lucky candidate yet, I suggest you consider my advice from the last election and vote for the guy with the mop. Alternately, you could paste the candidates' faces onto a set of dice and take your chances. Either way, life will go on pretty much the same after May 2.

On the bright side, it's only five more shopping days until I put my campaign cynic to rest, at least until the next election . . . which at the current rate should be in about eight months.

I promised to post photos from the Easter weekend ice rescue training course, but the pics are still on a disc in Dryden . . . which is a two hour drive. I could have them emailed, but it takes about the same amount of time drive there and back as it would take to receive them on my snail-paced server. You could scroll down and review the photos from the Atikokan course, but I guess if you've seen one firefighter swimming in ice water, you've seen them all.

I also said I'd post a photo of me with my chocolate Easter firefighter cat, and I can deliver on that promise. By the way, that's a 50/50 promise keeping record. That should make me eligible for job as either a politician or a weatherman.

Tearing myself away from lousy political satire, I saw this story in Firefighting in Canada today about a volunteer rescue crew in the Prince George area that is now asking for provincial assistance. BC's Public Safety Minister was conveniently unavailable for comment on the issue, but I suspect the response will be something like, "fire/rescue is a local problem," or "don't try to board the Wandering River band wagon." Perhaps it's too early to predict, but I wonder if Wandering River and Prince George mark the beginning of the end of volunteer patience with being sidelined.

Chad Sartison over at the Fire Within posted an article about sleeplessness in the fire service, which talks about the precarious position in which many volunteer chiefs find themselves, often unawares.

On a completely unrelated topic, it snowed again today. The March Lynx is so messed up now that I wouldn't be surprised if he growled his way right into the month of May. On the bright side (there's always a bright side), the blackflies will stay in their lairs for another week or so.

Don't forget to vote on Monday, even though things will continue pretty much the same on Tuesday. Remember, there is always a bright side. Give me enough time, and I might even be able to figure out what it is.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

woefully behind

I am woefully behind on all things literary. I haven't been reading my favourite blogs. I haven't been writing my favourite blogs. I couldn't even read the back of the cereal box this morning because I ate breakfast while wrapped in a heating pad on the couch.

The good news is that we successfully pulled off an ice rescue course in Dryden over Easter weekend. In keeping with evil instructor tradition, we made the crew work extra hard under extreme conditions, while the rest of the country hunted for easter eggs. The down side is that we worked extra hard ourselves, and today I feel like I've been run over by the Dryden ladder truck. To the Dryden crew, if you hurt half as bad as I did this morning, my weekend was a success.

(Also to the Dryden crew: before you start humming "My Heart Bleeds For You," and giving high-fives all around, let me assure you that a heating pad and ibuprofen are working their magic and I'm feeling much better.)

I hope to have a few photos to post soon, including one of me holding my Easter gift, which is a chocolate firefighter cat holding a baby cat . . . that my kids said was rescued from a tree (to commemorate my one and only cat rescue last summer).

I'm leaving for Toronto on Friday for the OAFC conference. I might be able to post again before then, and I will try to post while I'm gone. Hanging out in Toronto will be a holiday compared to rubbing shoulders with Northwestern Ontario Firefighters over the past month. I question whether it will be anywhere near as much fun though.

Don't forget to vote on May 2.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hostile environments

Humans are wimps. Sure, we live in scorching deserts, freezing tundra, and steaming rain forests, but we create friendly microcosms in which our tender bodies can survive. Northerners may think we're tougher than our tropical cousins because we can function when it's -40 outside, but take away our thermal clothing and heated dwellings, and we would turn to ice cubes just as fast as the Tahitians or the Javanese.

Firefighters take the 'friendly microcosm' idea a step further. We wear personal protective equipment so we can venture into hostile environments without getting fried, frozen, suffocated, or poisoned. Bunker gear, thermal entry suits, SCBA, and chemical protective clothing create a mini environment that insulates our fragile systems from the hazards of the job.

People think of firefighters as tough dudes, but our skin burns or freezes just as fast as that of the pen pusher or keyboard typist. We condition ourselves to broaden out that survival range ever so slightly, but the fact remains that if our body core strays a few degrees from a comfortable 36.5 C, or if the oxygen level in air we breathe drops much below the normal 21.9%, we get into trouble just like everyone else.

Last weekend we ran a firefighter boot camp for twenty three Fort Frances area volunteer firefighters. A good portion of the training was aimed at making them comfortable in their PPE microcosms. They trained on ladders and hose streams in a blizzard, crawled blindfolded through a claustrophobically dark and narrow training trailer, and snuggled up to smoke and heat that would wilt the toughest unprotected macho man.

Normal people spend their weekends in comfortable places, like a sunny beach in Cancun, or a soft couch by the fireplace. The hardy ones among us might take a trip to a ski hill. Not these folks. They volunteer to dress in smelly turnouts, strap a mask to their faces and work themselves to the bone for twelve or fourteen hours a day. Volunteer firefighters are indeed strange people.

Here's a crew learning the ropes on an exterior class A fire.

Here's an interior class A attack crew winding down after an evolution in the "can."

The class B fires are lots of fun, and give a practical demonstration of the microcosm created by PPE and water fog.

Here we are, deeper into the hostile environment, still protected by the friendly microcosm.

Car fire evolutions are universally popular. Everyone fights car fires, even firefighters on the peripheral edge of the universe.
Water supply isn't a glamorous job, but the rest of the training would come to a screeching halt without these guys.

Sometimes councils and mayors and bean counters wonder if we really need all those fancy toys. Perhaps we should invite them into our microcosms and show them what would happen if a decrepit pumper failed or an aged hose blew at the critical moment. I saw firefighters last weekend wearing decades-old equipment. If that microcosm is compromised while a firefighter is in a hostile environment, it's game over. We're still fragile humans underneath, just like everyone else.

The Newfoundland government apparently is getting the message. They just tabled a budget that includes a tax credit for volunteer firefighters, and a grant for 22 new apparatus. Even a political agnostic like myself has to applaud the fire service leaders that braved a hostile environment to lobby for this funding.

By the way, if you don't think politics is a hostile environment, you haven't been listening to the campaign ads.

Speaking of politics, my latest post (in which I encourage you to use your voice) is up at the CVFSA blog. We can all take a hint from the intrepid Newfoundland and Alberta fire services, who have both won significant victories at the provincial level. Perhaps we can build on that momentum at the federal level.

It's time to don your metaphorical SCBA, and head to your local politician's office. They need to know that the volunteer firefighter microcosm is in danger of being compromised.

We know what will happen if it is, but do they?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Maybe four elections in seven years isn't such a disaster after all. Think about it. The stereotypical politician doesn't wake up from hibernation until an election looms and his or her job is on the line. Then suddenly we get promises of tax breaks, $300,000 benefits for families of fallen firefighters, and to top it off, a prime ministerial promise to increase the number of volunteer firefighters in Canada.

I say we need an election every month. Before you know it, we'll have new trucks in every hall, turnout gear that actually meets a standard, and armed guards at the door to keep the swarms of wannabe volunteers from mobbing our training sessions. It would almost be worth the agony of listening to our honoured candidates stab each other like voodoo pin cushions on a weekly basis. Almost.

[Side note 1: I hasten to add that not all politicians are stereotypical. MP Rafferty put a good deal of time and effort into supporting the volunteer service last year, and all kidding aside, it was much appreciated.]

While we're on the topic of politicians stepping up to the proverbial plate, the Alberta government has pledged to pay for four permanent staff at the Wandering River Hall to respond on Highway 63. I find it interesting that less than a year ago they stated that this was a local problem. While I doubt that Hector Goudreau read my blog, I'm glad that he and his henchmen finally acknowledged that the province has some responsibility to help out. I hope that this is just the beginning.

[Side note 2: I don't think the Wandering River story has anything to do with the federal election, but I'm not entirely sure. Mixing provincial and federal politics is kind of like mixing metaphoric gift horses while changing them in mid-stream and looking in their mouths. Very confusing to say the least.] 

The Fire Marshal released a preliminary report about the Listowel tragedy that says the firefighters saw no significant smoke or flames when they entered the store that collapsed and claimed the lives of two crew members. I am still reluctant to comment much on this story, but I think it is safe to say that the final report (when it comes) will likely confirm my belief that we need more federal and provincial support than just thanks and a handshake. 

I'm in beautiful Fort Frances this weekend helping a team of instructors run the local volunteer recruits through the gauntlet of firefighter training. I seem to be running a week behind on my photographs, but I will hopefully have a few to post soon. As a consolation prize, here are a shot from last weekend's ice rescue in Atikokan.  
And a shot of me in an Ocean Commander standing a respectful distance from the Shark. Not that I'm afraid of him or anything, but the ice was pretty rubbery by late afternoon . . .
You may remember my harangue about the March Lynx. In true lynxish style, the March lion came roaring in today, April 16th. We trained in the snow all day, and I'm told that 20 centimetres or more was dumped unceremoniously on the fast-receding winter snow that was left in Upsala.

Next week we're planning yet another ice rescue course in Dryden. I wonder if Northwestern Ontario is the only place in the world where people volunteer to go swimming in ice water on Easter weekend.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cold Facts

"I'm not dead until I'm warm and dead."

The ice rescue students briefly pondered my admonition, then resumed their hurried discussion about which of the two "victims" should be rescued first. On the one hand, Graham the Shark (who was the other "victim") continued to wave his arms and demand that the rescuers pull him from the icy water immediately. Why waste time on me, he reasoned, since I was unresponsive and likely beyond help.

That was when I decided awaken from my self imposed coma to invoke the "warm and dead" ice rescue maxim, which highlights the fact that medical practitioners continue resuscitation efforts on hypothermic casualties until they have been warmed to normal body temperature. Unlikely cases have been brought back from the brink in this manner. Only when they are warm and show no signs of life are they pronounced dead.

I don't usually step out of character during rescue scenarios because I like to give the students a chance to work through the process themselves. I made an exception this time partly to help them sort out their priorities, but mostly because I didn't want to be left floating in ice water while they hauled the Shark to shore. In the end, they decided that there was room on the Fortuna for all, and they rescued us both. And we all lived happily ever after.

Now it's time to leave the rock solid shore of personal experience, and drift off into the analogical whirlpool of a pseudo political shrink. Got your life jacket on? Here goes:

A federal election is like an ice rescue in several ways.
  • the "rescuers" (our venerated politicians) must prioritize, because there aren't enough resources to go around
  • the "victims" (us) must compete with each other for those limited resources . . . because there aren't enough to go around
  • there is a good chance that some of us will be left out in the cold
  • the squeaky wheel gets their attention, deserved or otherwise
  • playing dead might evoke momentary sympathy, but won't likely lead to rescue (ie: funding)
We could turn this analogy around and make it really confusing . . . which is not unrealistic since we are talking about a federal election campaign.
  • politicians are the victims that need rescued from the ignominy of political defeat
  • we, the rescuers, can't save them all (who would want to anyway)
  • we should pick the one that is most likely to survive
  • the noisy ones aren't necessarily the best choice
  • none can afford to appear cold and dead, because sympathy doesn't exist in an election campaign
  • your gut feeling isn't always reliable
The bottom line, no matter how you look at it, is that we must take the bull by the horns if we want anything for volunteer firefighters. No one is going to rescue us otherwise.

When I get tired of this campaign nonsense, I take a side trip over to Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez's site for a reality check. In spite of the pleasure I get from satirizing our politicians, I admit in perspective that Canadians don't have much to complain about by comparison.

Speaking of bloggers, Brian over at The Damage is Done is having a tough go of it these days. His previous blog, Switch2PlanB, was the first firefighter blog that I followed, and he continues to hold a spot in my top bloggers list. Definitely worth a visit if you get a chance.

A final piece of sage advice from me, a newly trained and self appointed political ice rescue specialist: After the election, don't give up on the political process, even if your MP appears to be stone cold and lifeless. There is hope, even when all is lost. We just have to warm them up to our point of view. Remember, not even politicians are really dead until they are warm and dead.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I suspect that Eric Schmidt's ears are ringing from all the nasty things I said about Google Blogger's  ridiculous help section. After losing a few handfuls of hair, I finally sorted out the formatting problem of two posts ago, at least for the next five minutes. With cyber gremlins and evil computer barons wandering the digital world on a dastardly mission to wreak havoc on innocent bloggers like myself, I don't have much hope for long term cyber  tranquility, but for now all is forgiven. At least for the next five minutes.

Speaking of bloggers, the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association blog is up and running, and I am honoured to be a contributor. It's still a work in progress, but you can see the first three posts here. As always, I'm interested in your opinions about my opinions, so if you have comments, send them along (after they get the comment feature up and running . . .).

The instructing season is upon us, and my weekends are booked until the end of June. For the next couple months, firefighters will alternately roast or freeze, depending which course they choose. Believe me, it's a lot of fun, and a welcome diversion from a gloom of political campaign shenanigans. If you ever need cheering up, attend a volunteer firefighter training weekend. I'll try to keep you posted with any photos I can beg borrow or steal.

[Side note: I still think our venerated politicians should all be required to spend time each year volunteering, and a weekend ice rescue course would be just the thing to encourage them to chill out a little]. 

You can read one of my posts on recession, firefighter training, and the silver lining here.

While we're sort of on the topic of politics and opinions, Pittgirl has run into another hornet's nest by confessing that she's a Republican (horrors). You can see the post that caused the storm here, and the aftermath here.

American politics doesn't interest me as much as American opinions about politics. I think that everyone agrees that democracy gives you the inalienable right to be wrong. I get amused when people insist on claiming the right to tell you how stupidly wrong you are.

You can read about my musings on another hot American debate topic here and here. If you want to read more, just type "health care" into the search box . . .

You can read a confession about my former life here.

By the way, feel free to tell me anytime how wrong I am. It is, after all, your inalienable right :-).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

technical difficulties

I'm having trouble with the formatting in my most recent post on ice rescue, and it's now after midnight so it will have to wait. The evil computer barons are obviously active tonight. Stay tuned, I will yet conquer.

Update: I searched Blogger help and found that lots and lots of people have the same problem when they upload photos to Blogger. It's such a relief to find that I'm not the only html idiot in the world.

[Side note: I ended up inserting a bunch of serif dealies (~) in the places where Blogger refused to allow spaces, then changed the colour of the serifs to match the template background to make the unwanted text invisible. After numerous revisions and republishings, the post is up, but the format is still messed up, depending on the size of your screen. It's a lousy fix, but the best that I could come up with.]

The Blogger Help pages are full of problems and short on meaningful answers. Sounds like a federal election.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

of sharks, killer whales, and goldfish

Fire service instructors are evil people. Sort of. On Sunday I was floating off the edge of an ice floe waiting for a crew of students to come "rescue" me. As I watched them tiptoe their Fortuna craft across the rotten floe, with several unplanned plunges into the icy water, my evil instructor nature surfaced. I turned to the other instructor who was laying comfortably on the floe, muttered something about this being too easy, then wedged my way deeper into the gauntlet of ice chunks wrapped around the edge of the floe.

The rescue students approached. They followed their training to a T, and tried to sweet talk me into swimming back to the floe. I swam the other way. They tossed me a rope. I ignored it. Finally, they slipped the Fortuna into the ice-chunked water and the fight began. Paddling through heavy floating spring ice is like climbing the wrong way up an escalator through a jostle of Sumo wrestlers coming down. Lot's of effort, little forward movement. They persisted, and finally hauled me into the craft, where I was promptly rewarded with a face full of falling snowflakes and the occasional "accidental" splash of water while en route to the shore. Fire service students have an evil side too.

Here is a long distance photo of me and the other instructor.

Yes, we're out there. Here's a closer shot.

You may remember my water rescue training post from last summer, where I likened two of my fellow instructors to a killer whale and a shark. I, on the other hand, am a beached goldfish trying to swim through the sand, or in this case, the snow. At least there's plenty of room for personal growth.

Here's a shot of the killer whale overseeing a launch of the Fortuna.

And here's the shark supervising a throw rescue.

And here's me, the goldfish, demonstrating a self rescue.

Here's Jason, another instructor, getting hauled into the Fortuna.

It was a fun course, evil instructors, evil students, and evil weather notwithstanding.

Here is what's called a "go" rescue.  

And then time out for a little ice surfing.  

On a sadder note, here is a story of a Japanese firefighter (who I think was a volunteer) who lost his life warning his village of the impending tsunami. His story was undoubtedly one of many, most of which will never be told. Firefighter heroism is often romanticized to the point that the rest of the world doesn't grasp the personal pain that goes with it. The Japanese are resilient, but it will take years to recover from the economic and emotional damage they've suffered.

On another sad note, a man was killed in Winnipeg early Sunday morning when he was run over by a responding apparatus. He was lying on the road in the dark, and it appears that the accident was unavoidable. A story like this is sad in so many ways. Sad for the family of the deceased, sad for the department members that risk life and limb regularly to protect their citizens, and especially sad for the driver. Firefighters face enough emotional trauma without having to sort through this kind of emotion.

To end on a happy note, my April column is posted over at Firefighting in Canada. Editor Laura King asked me to write about the background of M-635, the parliamentary motion in support of volunteer firefighters. The motion is now dead because of the impending election, but I am hopeful that it will be reincarnated in some form or another.

On the bright side, firefighters are getting at least a degree of attention in the election campaign. It isn't official yet, but the Liberals are promising a $300,000 benefit for families of fallen firefighters. Both the Conservatives and the Liberals are saying the volunteer tax credit is a priority. Let's just hope that after the election, they turn their promises into action.

If they don't, we'll just have to invite them to an ice rescue course and feed them to the sharks. Now there's an incentive to support volunteer firefighters.

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