Thursday, December 15, 2011

Change is good. I think.

My last post notwithstanding, I am excited about my new job. If you are an eager beaver and read the last post before 8:30 Thursday morning, go back and read the addendum I added that expresses my feelings a little more clearly. Talk to me in a month and I'll be on top of the world.

The upside of change is that (they say) it is as good as a rest. Not that fire chiefing in Upsala is a strenuous job on most days. Humdrum paperwork, vehicle and equipment checks, training, planning, record keeping, public education, and various projects and missions I've taken on to round out my days . . . these are the things that keep an Upsala Fire Chief busy. We do have fires occasionally, and respond to highway incidents more frequently, and some days can be crazily hectic and over-the-top stressful because we are very few in number . . . but hectic isn't the norm.

In the past nine months or so, however, I've had frequent urges to ditch the whole thing and escape to Tahiti to lie on the beach for a few decades and forget. You can read undertones of these feelings in my March 29 post "The Peril of Caring." 

Stress isn't always the crush-you-to-powder style that crashes down in one event. It can be, as the analogy goes, little stones piled into your stress-backpack over years, and if you don't figure out how to unload them, one day one more little stone added to the heap breaks your back. My back isn't broken, but I had a wake up call a couple months after I wrote the March 29 post.

Relax, this isn't going to turn into another soul-searching Oprah post, and I'm not going to talk about my wake up call. I said all that to say, I'm ready for change, even though it isn't what I expected. Again, talk to me in a month and I'll tell you if it is as good as a rest.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Change doesn't come the way you imagine. It just comes.

Take winter for example. Who doesn't imagine fluffy white snow, village boys playing hockey on glistening ponds, and ice particles floating through the crisp, cold morning air.

Then December rolls around and sleet plasters the fluffy snow, the pond ice gets crusty and useless, and your fingers and toes freeze on that crisp, sunny morning because your gloves are wet and you forgot to put your bama socks on under your turnout boots.

Change comes and winter comes and we make the best of it . . . and we try to prepare. What gets us through is that we know that more fluffy snow will fall (and eventually melt, come May), we can make more hockey ice with a little work, and if we dry out our gloves and tuck the bama socks into our boots when we put them in the locker we'll be warmer next time.

Change has come to my life, and it isn't what I expected . . . except that I expected change to come, and I was pretty sure it wouldn't be what I expected. I accepted a position with Confederation College as the Program Manager, Pre Service Firefighter Program.

I've been job hunting for longer than I care to admit. I've even made it into the interview room a couple times, but I seem to have a knack for asking the wrong questions at the wrong time, which is bad when you are trying to impress a potential employer. My pie-in-the-sky idea of "the job" was something secure that paid a lot and allowed me to do what I like the best, which is instruct.

I imagined a job interview in which I wowed my potential employer with stunning presentations, nifty technology, and a sharp uniform. Instead I got a call on my cell phone while I was in town on other business, asking if I could come down and chat . . . which I did in my blue jeans and casual shirt. We had a solid, straight forward chat about the job. They learned about my background. I learned that the job was more managing than teaching, and that there was no guarantee it would last past the end of June (I already knew those things, but had hoped that reality was a little brighter than it looked on paper). I walked out not even knowing for sure if I wanted the job.

By the time I got the call to come finalize the details, I had decided that the time for change had come, and it didn't matter that it wasn't what I expected. I have been ready for change for a long time, and now was not the time to look a gift horse in the mouth.

My contract starts in January. We will stay in Upsala until the kids are out of school in June. I will keep my current position at reduced hours until the department can hire a new chief, then continue as a volunteer until we move. I don't like the idea of commuting to Thunder Bay (an hour and a half drive), but it's part of the change.

As for my future in the fire service, I haven't made any concrete plans. I told the other members of my mutual aid zone that I've invested fifteen years and a portion of my heart and soul into the service, and I would like to continue on in some capacity once we've made the move.

Besides, if I quit who will keep those imaginary anti-volunteer syndicates at bay.

Change is coming to the fire service. A journalist asked me what the Meaford trial could mean for the fire service. I said I didn't know.

The only certain thing is that change will come whether we like it or not. All we can do is make the best of it . . . and try to prepare.

After note:
Erinn read my blog this morning and said, "You don’t sound very excited about your new job." I am excited, but I’m also a combination realist/dreamer (a conflicted hybrid if ever there was one). I think in analogies, so here is one to describe my feelings right now:

Light years ago when I was a trapper, we’d wake up on a -30 degree morning knowing that we had to get out there and do our job. The thought of bundling up and strapping on a pair of snowshoes in those temperatures was not appealing, especially from the comfort a chair by a nice fire. I knew from experience, however, that within 30 minutes the blood would be pumping, my legs would be in gear, and I would be drinking in the Canadian wilderness like a fire instructor drinks a cold beer after a day in the tower (and my instructor buddies say in unison, "What does he know about that?).

I’m in that 30 minute transition period. I’ve been sitting by a figurative fireplace for a long time, but my trapper instincts tell me that the cold outside world will give way to new horizons, with lots to enjoy along the way.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Politely Opinionated

I observed early in my online journey that the Internet was a magnet for rabblerousers who wanted to proclaim their views from the safety of anonymity.  Just visit the comment section of even a semi-controversial news story and you'll still find herds of bare knuckled, knock-em-down cyberphantom street brawlers that make Joe Fraser and Mohamed Ali look like partners in Dancing With the Stars.

I appreciate that Canadians lean toward politeness and tolerance in these situations. We have a similar disposition to the Japanese mosquito, which bites like its North American cousins, but folds its hands and says "please" first . . . giving the intended victim time to swat before being bitten (unlike the Japanese black fly, which is just as rudely ferocious as ours).

Perhaps this is why the online discussions I've seen on the Meaford story haven't degenerated into virtual fist fights of opinions. There is no lack of variance in opinion on the matter in the fire service, but so far we have been able to keep it civil for the most part. If there was ever a need to project a solid, unified voice, now is the time.

Speaking of Meaford, the trial is on hold until the presiding justice of the peace decides whether there is enough evidence to proceed with the charges. You can read an article by Laura King about the most recent developments here, and an update on the Firefighting in Canada blog here.

I was glad to find that I'm not the only one to question the Ministry of Labour's choice to prosecute a fire department for decisions made during an act of service. Defense attorney Norman Keith said that "if emergency-service personnel, including a firefighter, is injured because of uncontrolled or unforeseen circumstances, it’s disturbing to think that the Ministry of Labour might point the finger of blame" at someone who is working in the public interest.

Unpredictability makes the fireground different from any other work place. We counter that unpredictability with operational guidelines, but no one can write a guideline that foresees every situation. Put firefighters in a dangerous mix that includes trapped occupants, a narrow window of opportunity to rescue them, and few resources, and the "right" choice is not simple. As the well-known maxim goes, we have to make decisions in seconds that others will have the luxury of picking apart over the course of years.

 In my December 5, 2010 post I talk more about the part operational guidelines play at emergency scenes.

Taking a brief pause in this diatribe, Ontario Vol FF is a new blog about the Ontario volunteer fire service. Here is a link. Knuckles, as he calls himself, offers another perspective on the volunteer service. Add this to Jennifer Mabee's blog on the Firefighting in Canada site, and it's good news all around. The more voices we have out there, the better.
 The down side of Canadian politeness is the danger of slipping into apathy. We don't like to rock the boat. Without delving into the mysteries of psychology, I think it isn't that we don't care, we just don't care enough to stir up trouble about things that we feel are none of our business.

I'm all about keeping our noses out of places they don't belong, and treating our opponents with polite civility . . . as long as they don't see our niceness as an opportunity to slap us like a mosquito.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I want to clarify that I have no bone to pick with the Ministry of Labour, or any other organization that honestly wants to make the fire service safer and better. If mistakes were made at Meaford, let's learn from them. I still have misgivings about the whole affair though, and you can read some of them at the CVFSA blog (if the link takes you to the home page, click "Volunteer Voice Blog" on the left side bar).

I remember when the media questioned Brunacini shortly after Brett Tarver died in a Phoenix supermarket fire in 2001. They wanted to know if something went wrong. I don't recall his exact words, but I'll never forget his tone. He said something to the effect of, "Hell yeah something went wrong. One of my firefighters died," [you idiots that had to ask such a stupid question].

Brunacini worked with Northern Virginia Community College afterwards to conduct tests as a result of the LODD, and the findings added much to our understanding of the challenges faced by RIT . . . and that knowledge is now incorporated into our training on the subject. I wonder if we will benefit from something similar as a result of Meaford and Listowel, or if we will be reduced to mere finger pointing and blame laying.

Be that as it may, the trial continues. Laura King wrote an informative piece on the proceedings, the only one that I can find out there in cyberspace so far. You can read it here. 

Leaving the topic of lawyers lining their pockets with tax dollars that could be better spent supporting the fire service, I observed once again today that a firefighter's life is full of contradictions, perhaps even more than the rest of this contrary world. A group of us took on the contract to make the hockey rink this year as a fundraiser, which means harnessing Mother Nature's help in making a large piece of smooth, level ice within the confines of the rink boards.

Here's the contradiction: cold and ice are the firefighter's enemies on the fireground, as you can read in one of my earlier posts, but we suddenly become best buds when we want a skating rink. We need that -20 weather to make a good foundation. If we let our guard down though, ice weasels it's way into our hoses and nozzles and fittings and mucks the whole process up. It only takes a  handful of slush to stop a nozzle, or a wafer thin layer of ice to freeze a fitting shut. Then we enlist the use of fire to fix the problem. Yes, that's right. Fire. Our arch enemy, harnessed in the nozzle of a propane torch, and directed carefully so as not to melt any rubber or plastic nearby. Fire, our enemy, becomes our friend against our other enemy Ice, which is also our friend when we make hockey rinks. I think I need a therapist.
You can learn more about how to operate in the winter here and here, and read a post on the Upsala (winter) Hydrant here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Meaford Fire Department is having its day in court again this week. You can read a bare bones update here. I've already said as much as is wise for someone who knows little about the incident, but I will reiterate my opinion that 1.5 million dollars - which is the maximum fine the municipality could face - would be much more effectively diverted into the veins of the fire service, rather than squandered as a punitive measure against Meaford Fire Department. You can read some of my previous opinions about the issue here and here.

On another controversial topic (that is receiving much more attention than the Meaford trial), a Tennessee department responded to a fire, then refused to put it out because the owner had not paid the subscription fee. You can read the story here. The same department faced the same issue last year, and responded in the same manner. They showed up and watched the house burn. You can read my thoughts on that incident in my Fire Prevention Week post from last year.

I find it interesting that the owner didn't pay because she didn't expect her house to catch fire. Kind of like not wearing a seat belt because you don't expect to crash.

As can be expected, the world is polarized on this issue (just read the comments on the news stories). Also as can be expected, I see the merits of both polarized views. Upsala is surrounded by area not served by any fire department. We don't always respond to these areas when requested, but if decide to go, we always protect whatever we can. And we always send a bill for service. It's a bad system in more ways than I care to discuss here and now, but it won't go away without a legislation change. . . which is about as likely as Dalton McGuinty showing up in Upsala for a dunk tank fundraiser.

To sum up my opinions on this issue, the only final fix is to expand fire protection boundaries, and require homeowners to pay through the tax system. Some see it as a radical thing to even imagine, and others can't imagine that such basic protection isn't automatically mandated like police and ambulance. The firefighters on the ground don't care. They joined to serve regardless of politics and opinions. The worst part is when they are are dragged into the controversy.

Someday when I'm King of the World, things will be different. When three services are required, three services will be able to respond without fretting about legalities and money. Legalities and money have a place in the fire service, as they do in the rest of the world, but when they elbow their way front and centre at an emergency scene, they are a distraction at best and a hazard at worst.

To finish on a slightly less controversial story, a New Jersey department rescued a flying squirrel a couple weeks ago. Add it to the controversial list of mammals, reptiles, fish, and birds that firefighters are called to handle. Some say it isn't our job. Some say it is. Regardless, when firefighters are called, they will respond and do what they can . . . and sort out the legalities later. 

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