Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the gauntlet

In order to survive firefighter survival training, you must be young, strong, and crazy. What I lacked in young and strong I made up in crazy, and got through the gruelling three day course without dying of exhaustion or having a heart attack. While my burning passion and bubbling enthusiasm (mentioned in the previous post) were both undoubtedly alive and well in the depths of my soul, I opted to leave them buried, and relied on grim determination and stubborn tenacity to bolster my craziness and get me through.

Not to say I didn't enjoy the course. There are just different levels of enjoyment. The young and strong enjoy conquering a brutal drill or beating the clock on a labyrinthine maze that would scare the Minotaur. I enjoyed stocking my arsenal with new new training ideas, and fitting more pieces into my overall training picture. The greatest enjoyment, however, came on Sunday when the lead instructor announced that the course was . . . over . . . and I was still . . . standing.

My cell phone camera didn't do justice to the ruthless intensity of the training, mostly because it was tucked safely away in my gear bag most of the time. It's hard to take videos while wearing a blacked out mask and wriggling through wafer thin crevices in full turnout gear and SCBA.

Here's a blurry cell phone clip of a firefighter bailing out an second floor window.

And another of a firefighter being pulled up from a hole in the floor on a hose line.

And here's a shot of a firefighter crawling through an entanglement maze.

I would recommend the course to anyone that is, or hopes to be a firefighter, especially if they are young, strong, and crazy.

Come to think of it, most firefighters are a little crazy. At least most of the ones I know. I'm actually thinking about making mild insanity a prerequisite for new recruits.

Speaking of firefighter survival, a Swedish fire expert talked bluntly about the subject at a recent Fire Rescue International conference. Based on the hurricane of comments at the end of the FireRescue1 column on his presentation, he hit a few nerves. I'm unwilling to wade too deeply into this cat fight - even though August seems to be Cat Fight Month at Beebewitz Blog - except to say that I believe that improving our safety record doesn't mean we have to stop risking a lot to save a lot. We just need to stop risking a lot to save a little or nothing. 

Thus saith the Ant of Upsala. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Safety Soapbox

I'm taking a firefighter survival course this weekend.

What. You didn't sense the burning passion, and bubbling enthusiasm in that statement? It's there, believe me . . . buried deep in the recesses of my firefighter soul. In fact, it's so deep that I'm having a hard time finding it myself. Don't worry, I'll get shovelling, and have it all dusted off and ready to go tomorrow morning. I might need a backhoe and dump truck, but I'll get 'er done.

Speaking of firefighter survival, here's a clip about wearing seatbelts.

Firefighters of all people should be  seatbelt believers, born again, baptized, and spreading the gospel. Unfortunately though, there are still plenty of atheists among our ranks. [Clearing my throat, and ascending my soapbox pulpit] If you won't wear it for yourself or your family, at least wear it for the others in the vehicle with you . . . who will suffer from your unbelief in the event of a crash because you will turn into a human ping pong ball, taking out everything in your path [unbuttoning my metaphoric clerical collar and stepping off my soapbox].

While I'm on the topic of dangerous stuff, here's a clip of a Los Angeles firefighter applying water to a car fire with explosive results.

In my humble opinion, it looks like the nozzle guy has done a few of these in his career. Since I've already squandered my monthly quota of meddlesomeness into others' business with two Toronto posts, I won't join the chorus of expert armchair quarterbacks that had numerous comments over at the FireRescue site where I first saw this video . . . except (sorry, can't help myself) to agree with the folks that wondered why the rest of the crew wasn't wearing SCBA. I also remember a Southern Ontario firefighter who ended his career in the exact same position as the two guys trying to open the hood.

Having made my share of mistakes, my intention is not to bash the good folk in either video. The bumper incident happened in 1999, and the firefighter, who broke his leg in 19 places, said he was unaware of the hazard. I'm pretty sure I was also unaware in 1999, or at least I didn't believe it was all that dangerous. If you've done any vehicle fire training since then, you've undoubtedly seen this clip, and while it's unfortunate to learn at the expense of a fellow firefighter,  it's criminal if we don't learn. I'm told that newer vehicles don't hold the same hazard, but the front or rear of a burning vehicle is never a good place to hang out. And smoke is always deadly.

Now I'm dipping into September's quota of meddlesomeness.

While we're on the topic of firefighter safety, Paul Combs combines a poke at Billy G with a true compliment to the influence the safety crusader has developed over the years. You can see the masterpiece here.

Firefighter safety is everyone's job, but responsibility especially lies squarely on the chief's shoulders. That's why I'm taking a firefighter survival course this weekend, even though my enthusiasm is buried deep in the recesses of my soul.

Gotta go find that backhoe.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Ant Speaks Again

Opinions are far more entertaining to blog about than boring old facts. Not that I don't value facts. I just don't have patience to track them down when there are labyrinths of opinionated rabbit trails to meander along.

After my rant about the Toronto kerfuffle, however, I felt a twinge of conscience about pulling 3, 4, and 8 minute response times out of the foggy information bank of my memory without thoroughly researching those numbers. For the record, I did do a little follow up digging, and confirmed that Toronto Fire's response time averages about 4.5 minutes, and less than 3 minutes in most downtown locations. Toronto EMS's average response time to high priority calls is about 7.5 minutes.

The problem with statistics, however, is that they aren't that simple. Just the response time issue has more complicating factors than a boreal swamp has mosquitoes. Different areas of the same city have different response times. Fire and EMS measure response times differently. Different priority calls are recorded separately. In a statistics war, each side pulls out the numbers most favourable to their argument. My head starts to spin, and I realize why I favour the rabbit trails of opinion.

During my quest for the Holy Grail of statistical truth, I stumbled into yet another cat fight: Fire vs EMS in Toronto. Click here and here for a couple articles that mix fact and opinion into a potentially explosive brew.

As the Fire Ant from Upsala, I'm not qualified to draw conclusions on this topic either, but since lack of qualifications hasn't stopped anyone else from opining, allow me to once again add my two cents. There seems to be a grudge that Fire has twice the budget of EMS, even though structural fire numbers have dropped dramatically. The grudge continues that Fire boosts its response stats with medical calls to justify keeping that budget. Critics say scrap Fire's medical responses, cut Fire's budget, and put the money into more ambulances, which are cheaper to buy and maintain.

Here's my opinion, uncluttered by the annoyance of facts and research. While structural fire numbers have decreased, they still do occur . . . and when they do occur, you need the same number of trucks and firefighters on the scene in the same amount of time if you want the same result. Sure, cut Fire's budget . . . but don't expect the same result. And if you decide you can't cut Fire's budget safely, then they should respond to medical calls . . . because there are fewer fires.

Hopefully there are people out there who, unlike me, are good at analyzing the facts, and are unbiased enough to accurately predict outcomes before flames lick at the taxpayers' heels.

Lethbridge, Alberta seems to have gained efficiency with their combined Fire and EMS. The Lethbridge model sees recruits trained as both firefighters and paramedics, giving them the ability to perform both functions at an emergency scene. Similar models are common in the States. Even an ant from Upsala knows it would be an operational nightmare to impose this on two well-established services that are steeped in separate cultures, but it sure seems to work in some places. Give them guns, and you'd have the most efficient combo since the invention of the copier/printer/scanner.

It helps, mind you, that Lethbridge has had nearly a hundred years to work out the bugs in their Fire/EMS system. In fact, it has the oldest dual role service in North America. You can read about it here and here.

Now that I have a headache from deep sea diving into other peoples' business with my toy snorkel and flippers, allow me to divert to other topics.

Paul Combs hit the fire hall humour nail on the proverbial head with his new cartoon at Fire Engineering. If you've never been assaulted by the Ghost of Incidents Past, don't try to figure it out.

Another Paul, my brother Paul Beebe, has his own method of de-stressing. He crawls through the wet, dewy forest on his belly with a camera to capture photos like this:

Once in a while Paul bumps into larger specimens, like this guy who was trying to climb a tree in his front yard.

Paul is a charter member of the Upsala Fire Department, and a knife maker by trade. He does photography on the side, and sometimes has a little too much fun.

You can see more of Paul's photography here and here.

Jack Layton

I was saddened to hear the news that NDP leader Jack Layton passed away early this morning.

I am not a member of the NDP. In fact, the so-called Political Compass said my sympathies theoretically lay firmly in Conservative territory. Everyone knows that computers lie though, and I am definitely not a Conservative either. Especially if being a Conservative means I have to like Stephen Harper.

Politics is another topic about which I have only heart-felt, non-expert opinions. My opinion of Jack Layton is that he was passionate, honest, and a champion of the small guy. That's enough to make me appreciate him, even if I'm not a card-carrying member of his party. I hope that his successor will bring the same passion and care for the Canadian people to the House of Commons.

For now, I offer my sympathies to MP Layton's family and colleagues. He had a big personality, and has undoubtedly left a big hole by his passing.

Your fight is over Jack. Enjoy a well-deserved rest in peace.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thus Saith the Ant

I don't like cat fights, at least not cat fights that I didn't personally start, but I just have to give my two cents on a recent kerfuffle in Toronto.

Ms. Levy has a right as a taxpayer and journalist to spout off about a few firefighters posing with a few ladies for a photo op around a shiny fire truck. It's freedom of speech in action. I don't even fault her for appearing to take pleasure in digging up the old budget grudge that firefighters get paid a lot to sit around and watch television. There's nothing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that says you can't enjoy spouting your opinions. I do it all the time.

If I had the opportunity to adjust her perspective though, I would say this: few people want to do the "other" stuff that those guys and gals do when they aren't posing for photos or watching television. Very few people need legislation that says if they get certain cancers, it's presumed to be work related. Very few indeed sign up to wade into disasters that are not their own. So if they want to take a few minutes with a few ladies, it's no skin off my nose. But then, I don't pay taxes in Toronto, or benefit from 3 and 4 minute response times when I'm having the worst day of my life.

As for the remark about the decreased number of fires (therefore decreased need for firefighters, hint, hint), I counter with a congratulations to the guys and gals of Toronto Fire for making progress. It takes vision to get the message out there and actually make an impact. In fact, I think the prevention and pub ed folks should get a raise.

In answer to the jibe about [purposely] increasing medical calls just so firefighters can look busy until the experienced guys show up, I say I hope someone gets to me in 3 minutes rather than 8 if I ever go into cardiac arrest. I don't expect Ms. Levy to know that every minute of delay in getting defibrillation reduces the chance of survival by 10-12%. Her job, after all, is ratting out delinquent public servants, so she can be forgiven for overlooking the fact that Toronto firefighters save people every year with their tiered response program . . . in between photo shoots, of course.

Upsala defending Toronto is like an ant defending a moose. Toronto doesn't need me, and Ms. Levy doesn't care about me. Even a peripheral edge of the universe fire chief has the right to freedom of sarcastic speech though, so here is my final word on this kerfuffle: Ms. Levy, if you are going to post a story about naughty fire guys using a fire truck as a photo shoot backdrop, at least try to eradicate that photo of you posing in a fire truck before you publish the story.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Yin Yang

Near the top of the list of Things My Mother Taught Me is that the best way to get something is to ask nicely. My mom knew I would hold her to her word, so she always added the notwithstanding clause that no request was guaranteed until approved by both the House (Mom) and the Senate (Dad), and that both had absolute veto power if the need arose. There was no magic formula for getting what you wanted, but you were guaranteed not to get what you wanted if you didn't ask nicely.

There are folks out there that must have missed this all-important rule of kidhood . . . like the yahoos in London who recently thought smashing and burning the town was a good way to make their point. Now the authorities are thinking about a ban on social media because the riots were organized to a large degree on Facebook and Twitter. This will likely get the freedom of speech guys upset, but if they want to be heard they'd better take the hint and ask nicely too. I haven't forgotten the boneheads of Vancouver by the way, just in case you think I'm throwing stones from a glass house.

I'm not taking sides here, and I'm glad I don't have to sort this one out. I like my Facebook account, but if I had to choose between it and having my windows smashed out, I think I'd choose unbroken windows. I don't think it's that simple though. Freedom and security are two opposing values in this yin yang world, and if we don't have both, things get lopsided pretty quickly.

Hydrantgirl writes about a less drastic type of yin yang in her recent post: Fire vs. EMS. I smiled at the post, because in a certain city near here, the rivalry between the two services is no secret. In Winnipeg, which is a little further away, I believe they are combined into one service, but I'm still not sure they always get along like ice cream and chocolate sauce. Even in Upsala we have upon occasion shared a little good-natured rivalry, but out here in the boondocks we need each other too badly to allow serious bad blood to develop between the services. Like freedom and security, the emergency services would be pretty lopsided without both Fire and EMS doing their part.

Then there is the volunteer firefighter vs career firefighter yin yang. Now that can turn into a truly scary topic. I've dodged the bullet so far by avoiding it pretty much altogether, but I keep saying that one of these days I'll write about the good, the bad, and the ugly of both. I don't think today is the day.

The final yin yang for this post is politicians versus hard-working citizen. For many years I hurled insults at politicians from the safety of my computer keyboard because they make easy targets, along with their non-elected counterparts, the bureaucrats. Remembering what my mother taught me though, I decided to try the "ask nicely" tactic last year. Both politicians and bureaucrats do play a part in balancing this odd society we've created, after all.

Being nice hasn't accomplished much so far, but having learned from the Londoners and Vancouverites, I at least didn't break any windows or set any shops on fire, so the window of opportunity is still open. You can read about my most recent attempt at asking nicely over at the CVFSA blog.

See Mom, it wasn't all in vain after all.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Wrangling my recalcitrant mind back into a firefighting theme has proven more difficult than expected. It has been two and a half weeks since I wrote my last meaningful firefighting post . . . assuming that my rant about Upsala being Canada's new firefighting Mecca was "meaningful." Since two and a half weeks of inaction is enough to dull even the most razor-witted blogger-mind, perhaps I can be forgiven for fighting a life-and-death battle with writer's block while trying to get back into the groove.

Among my multitudinous reasons for not blogging (which would interest you as much as the minutes from an Accountants Anonymous meeting), is the fact that I'm having some kind of weird problem that makes me feel like I'm perpetually in the early stages of motion sickness. I recommend the malady for anyone that wants to lose weight fast, and doesn't need to work for a living. My particular case is accompanied - or possibly caused - by tension in my neck, and regular headaches. I get similar symptoms after long, stressful calls, but they usually don't last more than a week. This has been going on for about ten days.

Now that you're convinced I'm a hypochondriac, I'll move on to the "meaningful firefighting post" that I was going to write.

Ontario heads into a provincial election in about two months, which is enough to give anyone a headache. I am still in the throes of my pseudo-success at the federal level last winter, and am now trying my hand at provincial politicking. That's in spite of the fact that our negotiations with Queen's Park last year were about as successful as Don Quixote jousting with windmills. After laying out the plight of volunteer firefighters in several meetings, and through a number of letters and resolutions, things stayed pretty much exactly the same.

Now that the end (or beginning, depending on your perspective) is facing politicians, however, they may be more inclined to benevolence. Or at least they may be more willing to promise the moon, if it will bring them votes.

Here's the strategy: send every candidate a survey asking specific questions about what their party would do for the fire service, if elected. It may not produce action, but it might at least generate promises. I will post the survey once it's been sent out, and will post any answers that I receive as well (thanks MP Rafferty for the suggestion). 

Speaking of support, or lack thereof, for the fire service, Toronto Fire  is still grappling with a possible budget reduction. Chief Stewart says that cutting 400 staff is a bad idea.  The alternative, which is to close some libraries and cut other social services, seems like a bad idea as well. As an aside, that's one choice Upsala will never have to face. We don't have a library.

Here's the strange thing about public service though. Many people receive direct help from librarians on a regular basis (even Upsalanians, when we visit Thunder Bay). Comparatively few people need the service of firefighters . . . but when they do need them, they really need them. Without going into a boring speech about how fire service cuts endanger lives, let me say that Toronto's dilemma is a snapshot of that faced by the rest of the country, even though many of us don't have libraries.

Another perspective on the issue: many library services can be accessed online now. Try calling a virtual firefighter the next time your house catches fire.

I think this headache is getting to me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

crazy intermission

Are humans born crazy, or do we get that way later? That was the question I asked while watching a horde of campers line up for a traditional plunge into an icy spring-fed pool during a canoe trip at the youth camp last week in Ava, Missouri. Later, during a seaweed fight (another camp tradition), I asked the question again. And then again when we raided the campers dormitories at 1:00 AM to herd them outside for a game of capture the flag, while the staffers showered them with water balloons.

The craziest thing is that these kids look forward to this and other insanities all year. And I thought firefighters were nutty.

The week ended with a 1950's themed banquet.

In spite of the lack of sleep, and frenzied activity in oven-like heat, it was a fun week. Definitely worth another 18 hour drive next year.

Here's what I think. We're born crazy, and we get crazier as time goes. It's all part of the master plan to keep life from becoming a bore.

Next post I'll try to wrangle my recalcitrant mind back into some sort of firefighting theme.

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