Friday, September 30, 2011

Of Heroism and Injustice

The Meaford Fire Department hearings were cancelled today and rescheduled for the week of December 5-9. I hate to see the agony prolonged, but if it gives the good guys' lawyers a chance to build a better case, I say go for it. As for these "good guys," rest assured that I refer to the fine folk of Meaford Fire Department.

I don't know them personally, and I don't pretend that they ran a flawless response on that fateful day. I do know the nature of the firefighter mission, and I see little benefit in brutalizing public servants that volunteer to crawl into burning buildings. Identify problems? Yes. Fix them? Absolutely. Allow a pack of overpaid lawyers to drag our best citizens through the muck and mire of court hearings, fines, and who knows what else? You've got rocks in your head. If our best fix is to kick a guy when he's down, something is terribly wrong with our system.

Here's an addendum to my previous suggestion that the prosecution pursue the case pro bono: if, in your infinite wisdom and understanding of justice, you decide that fines are necessary to make the wrongs right, so be it . . . but take the money and roll it back into the fire service. Better still, double or triple the money. If you are sincerely interested in making firefighters safer and smarter (and I would be with you heart and soul on that, by the way), do something positive for a change.

Whew. Nothing like coming in with both guns blazing at an opponent who neither knows, nor cares to know my opinion. But at least I feel better.

Speaking of heroes (and I was speaking of heroes), two firefighters in Mogadore, Ohio made a daring rescue last week. A true meeting of courage and opportunity if ever there was one. If you follow firefighter news, you've probably already seen the footage taken from a police video, but in case you haven't, here it is.

Such is the maddening enigma of our line of work. Two Mogadore firefighters tackled a rescue and fire attack without a RIT team, and possibly without an accountability or command system. They could have easily been injured or killed. They made two rescues and were rightly hailed as heroes. Two Meaford firefighters tackled a rescue and fire attack (allegedly) without a RIT team, proper accountability or command. They were injured and nearly killed. They found no one to rescue, and their department is villified. Does no one see the irony of these parallel stories?

I have no intention of lessening the heroism of the one, but I am frustrated by the hell-bent, tunnel visioned blindness that can't acknowlege the heroism of the other. It puts a new and sinister twist to the old saying that justice is blind.

I don't even like the word hero, by the way, but since we're on the topic, you can see CNN's top ten heroes for 2011 here. Whether you agree with their choices or not, it shows that hero, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Part of my self-proclaimed mission, by the way, is to change the perspective of the beholders. It's an impossible task, but I would be doing an injustice the firefighters of Meaford, Mogadore, and thousands like them across North America if I didn't give it my best shot.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Virtue vs Villainy

Meaford Fire Department will have its day in court on Monday. You may remember the incident that happened in September 2009, in which two Meaford firefighters entered the upper level of a burning restaurant to search for occupants reportedly still inside. The short version of the story is that both firefighters got into trouble and had to be rescued. One showed no vital signs and was resuscitated. The Ministry of Labour investigated the incident and laid six charges against the fire department. You can read about the incident here, and see another story that includes a list of the charges here.

Like usual, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

It’s true, two firefighters nearly died. It may be true that there were problems with the response, and with Meaford’s equipment and training. I agree that the Ministry of Labour has a duty to investigate fire service injuries and deaths so that future occurrences can be prevented. I grudgingly agree that charges might be a necessary part of the process. We must learn from our collective mistakes.

I disagree with a provincial government that steadfastly refuses to support the municipal fire service with funding, but eagerly hops on the enforcement bandwagon when there is an opportunity to lay charges. The Province says funding doesn’t fit their job description, and I say that their job description must change. Our operational deficiencies are directly connected to funding deficiencies. It doesn’t make sense to hold the purse strings tightly closed in one hand, while swinging a baseball bat with the other.

Taking a short detour from the main point, there is a fine line between virtue and villainy. If people had been trapped in Reed’s Restaurant as was reported, and if the brave Meaford firefighters had rescued them, they would have been rightly hailed as heroes . . . even though the same problems and deficiencies existed for which they are now charged. Guilt or applause is directly influenced by the outcome rather than mere facts. 

Back on track, I took a cue from one of the comments in the heated debate that raged over at in July 2010, and came up with an off-the-wall, from-the-hip idea for funding the fire service. Let the MOL investigate and prosecute volunteer fire departments if they must – and they certainly will, regardless of my permission – but let them donate their time, and their lawyers’ time pro bono. It makes sense that volunteer departments be investigated and prosecuted by volunteers. The funds saved would then be diverted into the fire service. I have no idea how much taxpayers’ money the province will spend on this and other similar cases in the next few years, but I do know that it would be put to good use by thousands of firefighters that are currently underfunded. Supporting them now is the best way to prevent future occurrences.

Note: If you live in the area, the Meaford Fire Department could use your support. The proceedings will start at 10:00 am on Monday, September 26th at the Provincial Offences Court, 595 - 9th Avenue, Owen Sound, Ontario.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of Weather Gremlins and Heroes

It's snowing again. That's twice in September. You'd think the weather gremlins would know they only have to bring the white stuff once this month to make their point, whatever their point is.

[Side note: Here's where you email me a photo of the world's smallest violin playing, "My Heart Bleeds For You," and tell me it's my own fault for living on the far-flung peripheral edge of the universe.]

On the bright side, it's supposed to be sunny for at least five days straight starting Friday. You'd almost think Indian Summer had arrived, except that my strict definition of Indian Summer states that the ground has to be completely white at least once before any nice weather qualifies. All sunshine before the first blanket of snow is simply a beautiful fall day.

On a different topic, you can help a Nova Scotia fire department win $5000 from Munro Insurance (thanks to Laura from Firefighting in Canada for the heads-up). Go to Munro's Facebook page and click 'like,' then go to the contest page, click on the department(s) of your choice and click 'like' again. I scrolled through the photos and clicked 'like' for the ones that looked like they needed the cash. There were quite a few. Stephen Harper and Darrell Dexter should take a cruise through to see the state of the brave men and women that protect our country from fire.

Speaking of brave men and women, I've been thinking about the term "hero," which gets bandied about quite a bit in relation to firefighters. Politicians in particular like to talk about "brave firefighters" and "courageous volunteers," at least until it's time to include them in the budget. Michael Perry, of Population 485 fame, identifies heroism as the place where courage meets opportunity. The fact is, many of us will never have that meeting, nor do we even know how we would react if we did. That doesn't make our organizations any less worthy of support though.

There is a different kind of courage that is evident in volunteer departments across the country. It won't make headlines or turn heads, but it is courage nonetheless. It's what makes firefighters show up on a Monday or Wednesday night for training, or crawl out of a warm bed when it's -30 to respond to a neighbour's fire, then go straight to their day job afterwards. This kind of courage takes a ragtag menagerie of equipment, combines it with a ragtag group of people, and makes the best out of a bad situation.

There are most certainly members among our ranks that meet the strict definition of hero as well, but it's the everyday firefighter that makes the volunteer service worthy of esteem . . . and tangible, dollars-and-cents support.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Weather or not (continued) and other ramblings

It's a good thing I didn't waste time feeling sorry for the Upsala firefighters that are taking vehicle extrication at Fire Con this weekend. It turns out they won't be out in the rain tomorrow after all. They're scheduled to learn equipment maintenance in a nice dry warehouse.

Here's a couple shots of them ripping vehicles limb from limb in the nice September sunshine.

Frank the Killer Whale, Aime the Rainman, and Jason (who doesn't have a nickname yet) are teaching pump ops in the rain, but I won't feel sorry for them either, mostly because I am certain they wouldn't feel sorry for me if I were in their boots.

Graham the Shark taught fire suppression today with the Dryden crew, and has the day off tomorrow (if I remember correctly).

I've never confessed that my nickname used to be Tim the Torch, a designation I earned during a couple of ill-fated vehicle fire training evolutions. I won't give details now, except that they involved gasoline and an ignition source. I've since reformed my ways for the most part, and I think the torch label has been laid to rest.

As you already know, I'll be in a comfortable classroom tomorrow not feeling sorry for anyone . . . and coaching future fire service instructors. It's tempting to miss the excitement of live fire, but then I remember the scalding heat, the sore back and knees, and the smoky wet turnouts, and I don't feel so bad. Besides, there are correlations between instructing live fire and training trainers. 

For example, the terror in the eyes of some students performing their first-ever presentation is not unlike the terror in the eyes of some recruits entering their first-ever live fire. It's a whose-idea-was-this-anyway look that mirrors that of an acrophobic taking skydiving lessons. The pleasure of seeing a future trainer gain confidence is equal to the pleasure of seeing a timid firefighter nail a fire attack (and ask to go in again) as well.

Fire service instructors are not all evil-to-the-core like I implied in my April 5 post. Pump ops, live fire, search and rescue, trainer facilitator, it doesn't really matter. All of our harassing, egging on, and pushing are aimed at making the participants safer and smarter firefighters.

At least, that's our story and we're sticking to it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

weather or not

It snowed. I guess the gremlins couldn't take a joke. September 14 is an early first snow, even by Upsala standards, but it could be worse. Arctic Bay, Nunavut is forecasted for snow for the next five days. Not that I have any intention of going to Artic Bay, but it at least I feel better knowing that someone is having crappier weather than we are.

Seeing that the artic winds have found us earlier than usual, I should probably revise my forecast, but I'm sticking to my guns and predicting a mild winter. Hey, if I'm going to spout off about things I know nothing about, I might as well spout off good news rather than bad.

I'm teaching in Thunder Bay this weekend at Fire Con, a regional conference that draws a couple hundred firefighters from across Northwestern Ontario. The weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow, with a little rain on Sunday. Not that I care. I'm doing a Trainer Facilitator course, which is all classroom.

I could feel bad for the two Upsala firefighters are taking vehicle extrication - which is outdoors - but I don't because it could be worse. They could be training outdoors in Arctic Bay.

There's always a bright side if you just look hard enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


When I was a child, I was instructed not to say a certain four-letter word that started with "s." I still don't know why one word is bad, and another is good - even though they both mean the same thing - but such is the enigma of language and culture.

When I saw the weather forecast for tomorrow, a four-letter "s" word slipped out of my mouth, in spite of my childhood training.


I did sort of prophesy that it would snow this weekend, but I was just kidding. I talked about the dread September snow as well, but I thought the weather gremlins could take a joke. I guess not . . . or at least we'll find out tomorrow.

The good news is that the forecast for the weekend is sunny and warmish, so the Red Lake firefighters that gave up their fishing and boating last weekend (to be harassed by a group of heartless instructors) will get another chance.

Speaking of Red Lake firefighters, I managed to sneak a couple shots of a roof ventilation evolution.

I wasn't able to get any shots of the really fun stuff, but I have some from the June Red Lake course that I can post later.


Tonight I watched a tribute to firefighters produced by Fireman's Fund Insurance Company. It's a strange profession that we're involved in . . . and even stranger that groups of people across North America (like the Red Lakers) volunteer to do it. Most of them appear to be normal people, and none think of themselves as heroes. The documentary was moving, and gives a glimpse into the many sides of firefighting. You can read more about it here, and see a clip on Youtube here.

On second thought, anyone that gives up a weekend of incredible fishing in unbelievable weather - just to be pushed and shoved and tied up and roasted so they can be trained to help their neighbours - seems a lot like a hero to me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I was tired and a little gloomy on the eve of 9/11 this year, so my tribute was very short. Today I went back and reviewed my 2009 tribute and found that it still echoes my feelings today. Here it is again, for what it's worth.


Today is the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Everyone has their own memories of the moment they heard the news. My first thoughts were of the firefighters that I knew were certainly inside the World Trade Centre, trying to save what they could.

Some people asked me why they entered in the first place. A few even suggested that the emergency responders acted foolishly. Here's my opinion: they entered because they chose a very unique, risky career . . . and because they wanted to help the folks inside. If they had known the building was going to come down would they have gone in? Maybe not. They didn't know, they were willing to take the chance, lives were saved because of what they did. Click here to see a video clip of firefighters in action on that fateful day. Nearly 3000 people were murdered in cold blood. 343 of them were firefighters.

The next prominent thought was the certainty that there would be war. I remember telling my son, who was six years old, that many, many innocent people were going to die because of this hateful act. An idiotic idealism masked as religion was going to bring unthinkable misery on the Afghan people, many of whom had as much interest in jihad as they had in going to the moon.

The Americans make plenty of mistakes, and part of the world believes they are evil. Here's my take on that: if the Americans are evil, lunatics that fly jets into skyscrapers are the sludge on the bottom of the sea of depravity. True, the Americans - and Canadians - are responsible for much death and destruction. War is despicable, there is no escaping the fact. The jihadist mentality, on the other hand, loves war. It doesn’t care who dies, enemy, friend, foreigner or countryman, man, woman or child . . . it’s happy as long as someone is being murdered. The goal? World slavery. Those consumed with this doctrine won't be content until every person in every corner of the globe is chained by their garbled parody of religion.

My tribute to the 9-11 victims is to remember the firefighter. They aren’t gods, and they aren’t angels. They’re humans with the same shortcomings as everyone else. They make mistakes and screw up sometimes . . . and they pay a heavy price physically and emotionally. Not all of them will be blazing heroes on the front page news. But if the Devil shows up . . . like he did eight years ago . . . they will be at the head of the line to meet him.

If you are interested knowing the challenges that still face the 9-11 rescuers - fire, police and paramedics - click here.


I'm staring at my computer screen after a very long day of harassing (aka: training) the dedicated volunteer firefighters of Red Lake. I'm thinking about the 10th anniversary of a new kind of madness. 9/11.

I should have something wise and insightful to say, but I don't. I can't pretend to understand the forces that fueled the attack, or the ones that have perpetuated the ten years of conflict that followed. I can't comprehend 343 firefighters killed in one blow, or the hundreds of thousands of people - innocent and otherwise - that died after. So I'm not going to pretend.

Tomorrow we will remember by moving forward with our lives. We will take a moment of silence to reflect, but then we will keep on training, learning, living. I hope it's an appropriate way to honour the fallen, because it's the best I can do for them.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Flight of Summer

Just like that, summer is gone. In reality, it's been gone for a couple of weeks, but I was able to fool myself into thinking that it was still here until the kids hit the classrooms.

The best way to combat the end-of-summer blues is to convince yourself that fall really is the best season of all. The trees smoulder, then burst into fiery colours. Geese lounge in the fields, taking a break from their southward retreat. The bush smells musty sweet and whispers, "Come for a walk before the snow ends it all."

Snow. That's the down side of fall. A September or October snowfall puts a damper on even the cheeriest autumn optimism. Here in the peripheral edge of the universe we sometimes escape the dread September snow. Occasionally we even escape October snow. One time Indian Summer cast a spell on the arctic wind, and we had a nearly snowless November. I'm young enough to remember wishing for snow, and old enough to wonder how I could have been so crazy. I'm still not too old to enjoy a few snow-dependant activities like skiing and snowshoeing though.

This post is sliding downhill faster than a greased pig on an iced toboggan. Summer to winter in three short paragraphs.

Rewinding to Fall, the Fire College training season has begun, so my weekends are booked for the next month or six weeks. Hopefully the snow holds off until we're done. The white stuff is great with a pair of skis strapped to your feet, but not much fun in turnout gear.

This is not good. Summer isn't even cold in her grave and I'm dancing with a foreboding of early winter. Time to put my game face on and make my traditional counter-prediction to the Farmers' Almanac, which is yet again gloomily predicting a cold, dry winter. You may remember my counter prediction from two years ago, which simply speculated that winter would be nice rather than nasty. Once again this year, using my trusted blend of wishful thinking and unrealistic optimism, I predict that it's going to be snowy and mild. I guess we'll see.


All this talk about winter and snow, and the weather forecast for tomorrow is sunny with 30 degree temperatures. That's 30 C which is roughly 90 F. We're training in Red Lake again, and I think the only thing worse than dragging hose through the snow is dragging it in sub tropical temperatures. Someone needs to tell the weather gremlins that autumn started last week.

This post has really gotten weird. First I'm groaning about early winter. Now I'm griping about summer weather in September.

Today we ran the crews through firefighter survival drills. Here are a few lousy cell camera shots of a big guy squeezing through a ladder in a low profile drill.

You can't tell, but he's smiling in the last shot. You would be too if you had just finished the drills he endured.

Tomorrow it's ventilation, search and rescue, and IMS. Sunday it will be live fires. I have to hand it to these folks. They live in a small northern town within a stone's throw of incredible fishing opportunities . . . the weather is perfect (for fishing) . . . and they took time off work . . . to crawl around in a smoke trailer, and roast themselves in hot sweaty turnouts. And it's probably going to snow next weekend. Volunteer firefighters are indeed some of the most peculiar and incredibly valuable human resources Canada has.

I hope Canada learns to appreciate them before they go extinct.

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