Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Last Post :-(

I've tried a dozen ways to begin this post, and the right words elude me so I'll just say it: this is my last post.

Change is as certain and unyielding as the seasons, and like the seasons, change is about beginnings and endings. The beginning this time is that I accepted a full time position as Northern Instructor for the Ontario Fire College.

This is good news for me. It means security, benefits, and the ability to buy a house (all things that normal people nail down much earlier in life), and I'm thankful for the opportunity. It will also reconnect me with the volunteer service where I spent the vast majority of my career. Last but not least, I will work full time in firefighter training, about which I continue to be passionate.

The bad news (and the ending) is that I can no longer write the Spontaneous Combustion column for Firefighting in Canada . . . or my blog. Wild and wacky opinions are appropriate for a maverick fire chief tucked safely away on the peripheral edge of the universe where he can do little harm, but they won't work for a neat and tidy Ontario public servant, which I will become in a few weeks. On second thought, neat and tidy is an exaggeration . . . but I will be an Ontario public servant nonetheless. 

Only a crazy  person would be sad about giving up a nutty hobby in favour of a secure job, so the good news outweighs the bad. However . . . I am a little crazy . . . and a little sad. There are still giants to be slain, windmills against which to tilt my lance, and opinions to promulgate. If I were Cervantes or Shakespeare, I could perhaps keep my post at the keyboard and make a secure living as a crusader, but (in the words of Cervantes or Shakespeare) the better part of valour is discretion, and discretion dictates that I take a hiatus to look after my family.

On the bright side, I will gain a new perspective. Although I've worked with a gamut of fire departments, I've only seen the issues from the viewpoint of a small-time fire chief. My new role will show me a different side of the same issues.

Another bittersweet ending is my contract with Confederation College's Pre Service Fire Program. Six students were hired by Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, and I believe the program has a bright future. I invested myself heavily into the maiden voyage of the program, and will leave a piece of me behind.

I can't write a final post without mentioning the Meaford trial, the outcome of which now hangs on the decision of a judge. I've voiced more than my share of opinion on this issue, so I'll let it rest with a link to an article by Laura King that echos some of my feelings on the matter.

It's been a great ride, and I've enjoyed the connections I've made along the way. I plan to leave the archived posts on line for the time being, and will continue to respond to any comments my readers leave.

I may yet find an outlet for my writing that is befitting a (not so neat and tidy) Ontario public servant. Perhaps I could change my angle and start a pseudo recipe blog.

Don't panic. I'm kidding.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Normally Strange

When it blizzards at bedtime, normal people think, "Yahoo! Snow day tomorrow!" . . . which means a sleep in, and a day off work.

Volunteer firefighters are not normal people. When it blizzards they think, "I'd better lay out my clothes carefully because I may get called out at 3:00 AM."

Normal people that are smart think, "The roads are bad. Better change my travel plans." Volunteer firefighters think, "Better brush off the car and be ready to roll, because some of those normal people aren't smart and won't change their travel plans."

It isn't a trite cliche to say that firefighters run in while everyone else is running out, and it doesn't just apply to fires. We were called out at 3:00ish this morning to a double tractor trailer crash. I stepped out into the howling gale (after putting on my carefully layed out clothes) and thought, "This is nuts." We made our way to the hall and were just ready to head out again into storm when we were cancelled. Just enough of a call to keep the newest Upsala superstition alive.

Here's the view out our front window in the morning after things calmed down a bit.

The stone pillar on the left is about three feet high, not counting the sundial, which gives you an idea how much snow fell overnight.

And here's the car just before we dug it out.

The good thing about my new-ish role as a volunteer firefighter is that I have a semi normal job at a very normal college . . . and the roads were closed for a good part of the day . . . which meant I got to sleep in and take the day off work.

There's always a silver lining.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sometimes stuff happens . . . just because

I'm NOT superstitious. It is difficult, however, to dispute hard, cold facts that appear to support an unscientific belief. I came home Thursday evening instead of Friday this week because of the long weekend. As we were preparing for bed, Phillip arranged his clothes carefully because "Dad is home, so there's a good chance we'll get a call."

Since I started working in Thunder Bay, I've only missed one call . . . and I'm gone for the better part of five days a week. It could be written off to the possibility that people are more likely to get into trouble on the weekends, but our last call was on a Tuesday. A moose just happened to walk in front of a car on a night that I just happened to be home (on a night that I'm not usually home).

In keeping with the fast-growing belief that my presence in the neighbourhood precipitates 911 calls, another moose walked in front of another car on Thursday night . . . which is another night that that I'm not usually home.

I've been to lots of these, but I am still awed by the phenomenon of a moose cleanly shearing the roof off a car. This particular time, the metal was peeled like it had been cut with tin snips, and smashed into the back seat. The driver sustained severe head injuries, and will need to keep company with a good plastic surgeon for a while, but he's very fortunate to still have his head on his shoulders.

If you're curious, here is an example from another crash in another province where another moose just happened to walk in front of another vehicle.

I have never been to Newfoundland, by the way, which is proof that stuff happens whether I'm in the neighbourhood or not.

Even though I'm not superstitious, I do always lay my clothes out carefully before going to bed. You have to be ready because you can never predict when stuff is going to happen.

If you want to avoid hitting a moose while driving through the Upsala area (with a side benefit of combating a non-scientific belief spreading through our ranks), check out this WikiHow site.


I received an email the other day from a Discovery Channel program called Canada's Greatest Know-It-All. When I realized it wasn't a hoax, I was flattered for a few seconds. They said (and I quote): "We are currently looking for Canada's best and brightest minds . . ."

"Wow," I think, "Somebody is FINALLY acknowledging my great contribution to literature . . . " Then I read further. "Please let me know if you would be able to assist us in finding appropriate candidates for the show by reaching out through your contacts, social media or posting the casting call on your website."

"So that's the deal," I think. "I'm not so bright, but I might know someone who is." Of course, my first thought was that they heard I knew Graham the Shark and Frank the Killer Whale, either of whom could probably win the competition, but neither of whom is likely to take a month off in June to enter.

I'm afraid I can't help with this one. I may know two people who between them know nearly everything there is to know about anything, but I don't expect that I can persuade them to go on national television. They are both too busy protecting their own neighbourhoods, because stuff happens there too.

If you happen to know someone that knows everything and can take the month of June off, here is the link to the Canada's Greatest Know-It-All site.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


On a scale of 1 to 10 (in which 10 is amazingly enjoyable, and 1 is deplorably wearisome) shopping ranks about .05 in my books. The exception would be if I were shopping for a new tool that I both wanted and could afford, or a horse under the same conditions. Since those types of shopping experiences come less often than Haley's Comet, the overall rating of .05 still holds.

If you narrow the criteria down to rental house shopping, the rating drops even further. This is  unfortunate, since we need a place to live when we move to Thunder Bay, and landlords don't generally shop for tenants . . . which makes it incumbent upon us to shop for them. While I am not an authority on looking for landlords, I've drawn the conclusion that 99.9% of Thunder Bay rental houses fit nicely into one of the following categories:
  1. Too small
  2. Too rough
  3. Too expensive
  4. Too late (someone else found it first)
My eternal optimism is being severely tried, but I still cling to the shred of hope that the .1% house will show up before we go crazy looking, or at least before June 1, which is when I gave notice that we would terminate our rental in Upsala. When a friend asked how things were going I said,  "Other than the fact that my job is temporary and I don't have a place to live, everything is great." He said he liked how I looked on the bright side.  
There are other bright spots as well. I met some very nice people who were offering a very nice home (that was too small), for an attainable price. Three out of four is good, but we're still holding out for that .1% house. When I told the owners that I had been the fire chief in Upsala for a lot of years, the husband said, "I floated a truck for Upsala Fire Department about five years ago." I remembered the occasion, confirming the widely accepted belief that the world is getting smaller. If you don't believe this unscientifically proven theory, check out my small world post from November of last year.

Incidentally, Stephen Harper has gained fans since my discovery that an onion ring out ranked him in Facebook popularity. His fan base now exceeds 70,000, while the onion ring seems to have stagnated at just over 160,000.

On a different theme, I had a brief brush with superstition the other day. When I made arrangements for the Pre Service Fire students to do extrication training, I found out that the scrap yard was a sea of mud. I scrambled to find another location, but it's hard to beat a yard full of old cars as a vehicle ex training ground, muck or no muck.

We went ahead with the original plan, and when I went to check on the crew later in the afternoon I mentioned to the instructor that, looking on the bright side, at least it wasn't raining. He didn't say anything, but I had a "knock on wood" feeling that I shouldn't have said that. Since I'm not superstitious I didn't knock on wood, and the next morning we woke up to 10 cm of wet, sloppy snow. The only thing worse than a muck hole as a training ground is a muck hole covered in sloppy white snow-soon-to-be-water.

In my own defense, I have squared off with the fire gremlins and beaten them at their superstition game. You can read about it in the latter half of my January 2010 post.

Speaking of superstitions, my brother Paul spent some nights a while back taking shots of the Northern Lights (which some folks say portend various things). He made a slide show out of five hours of footage, taken at thirty second intervals.

You can see more of his stuff here.

To finish off this hodgepodge post, here is one of my favourite Youtube videos which, if you are a loyal reader, you may have seen in one of my archived posts. If you like guitar it's worth the two minutes and thirty-six seconds to watch it. Nothing to do with firefighter training, house hunting or superstitions, but I plead Blogger Sovereignity.

Hey, if I can't be King of the World, at least I can call the shots around this piece of cyberspace.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Down but not out

I've been derailed.

Up until the middle of December I was firmly on track, fuelling my literary steam engine with life experiences, opinions, and reflections on things meaningful and absurd, hilarious and heartbreaking, significant and frivolous.

That's a lot of fancy words just to say I seldom lacked blogger fodder.

To continue my diatribe, up until the middle of December I forged onward with single-minded determination toward my literary destination, which lay (I was certain) somewhere out there in the never-never Shangri-La of bookish self-fulfillment. Then it happened. Change.

Back when I first accepted my current position with Confederation College, I mused about whether change was good. My friends and acquaintances assured me that it was. I maintained that change was neither bad nor good, it just was, like it or not. The final word, of course, is that change is like anything else in life. It is what you make it to be. The change from fire chief to training manager has been good for me, and I am working hard to make sure it stays good. I wasn't expecting the change to affect my other life so much, however. In short, my blogger fodder dried up.

I don't think the world is any less meaningful or absurd (etc. etc.) than it was in December. The fire service still needs help, terrorists are still crazy, and Stephen Harper still makes a broad target for any self-appointed satirist that chooses to aim in his general direction. For some reason, however, none of it compels me to write like it once did.

Wow. This is a really glum post. Time for some Paul Combs artwork, in honour of International Women's Day (which, in my mulligrubbed state, I failed to commemorate, along with Family Day, Groundhog Day, and March-Coming-In-Like-A-Lamb Day). In all seriousness though, women continue to play a significant part in Upsala Fire Department history, as do a menagerie of other good folk. When someone needs a firefighter, they generally aren't fussy about trivial things like gender, race, colour, or career.

Speaking of women, the female fire bloggers out there are proof that the world still turns, even while I sit on the sidelines. Check out Laura King's blog, and Jennifer Mabee's blog.

The world still turns in Upsala too. I continue to keep my pager turned on when I'm home, and people still dial 911.  My daughter caught her hair on fire blowing out the candles of her 14th birthday cake, and we didn't call 911. Phillip capitalized on the mishap and posted the following on Facebook within seconds of the event:

Upsala News: Deputy Fire Chief's daughter catches hair on fire while blowing out cake! --- true story, it just happened :) I wuv you Vanessa!

Speaking of Facebook, I received an email last night saying that Andrew (who is sometimes called Hollywood) had posted a photo of me. "Nice," I thought. "Andrew is thinking of me even while he's in Florida basking in the subtropical sun." Turned out that both Andrew and Graham (the Shark) were in Florida thinking of me. I clicked on the link and found this.

I'm guessing they were Facebooking under the influence, as I don't think it looks like me at all.
This morning dawned clear, but not too cold, and by 4:00 the temperature had risen to a balmy 15 degrees C, perfect for snowman building.

I considered posting the photo on Facebook and tagging the snow people as Andrew and Graham, but since I rarely drink, I wouldn't be able to write it off as an act committed while under the influence.
My brother Paul has been on the prowl for the past few nights, snapping photos of the auroras which have been very active recently. Here are a couple shots.

In my October 25 post I surmised that the auroras portended a mild winter. Based on indisputable data from January, February, and March, I wasn't far off the mark, at least about the mild winter part. I'm not quitting my day job yet, but if I hone my prognostication skills, they might at least develop into a hobby that brings in extra retirement cash. Provided I am actually able to retire someday.

Speaking of hobbies, Paul has been spending a little too much time wandering the bush at night photographing auroras.

You might be able to follow this link to see more of his aurora shots, along with other photographic whimsies (I'm not sure if you have to be friends or not).

Just to prove that I haven't been completely derailed, and still think about things that used to turn my world, here is a link to an update on the Meaford trial. Only one charge remains of the six, with a trial date set for April 30.

Part of my derailment stems from the fact that I'm not as heavy into the volunteer service as I was when I was chief. Another factor (perhaps the main one) is that I spend an inordinate amount of time at my very new career, and rarely have time to let my mind ramble in a manner conducive to blogging. The final nail in the metaphoric coffin is that I have little time to follow fire service news, another frequent source of blogger fodder.

Enough excuses. Change has come, and I am adjusting to the new normal. No promises on when I will be back on track, or even whether I'll know what "on track" looks like in this brave new world. But derailed or not, I like blogging too much to abandon ship altogether.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dog in a Cat's World

There's a theory that most personalities fit into two categories: dogs or cats. This has little to do with which pets you like, but rather, how you relate to others.

Dog personalities like to please people. They are team players, and make decisions through extensive consultation. Cat personalities make independent decisions according to their own interests and priorities. Others' opinions are only important if they fit the cat's own single-minded purpose.

Suddenly the past few years of my life make terrible sense. I am a dog, in a world ruled by cats. What's worse, I unwittingly believed that most of our beloved leaders were dogs. No wonder I couldn't make any headway as a political activist.

It isn't all bad news though. Just mostly bad news. Cats are often capable (if uncaring) leaders. A cat can make a sound decision in the time that it takes a group of dogs to get through the first round of introductions. Richard the Lionhearted and Napoleon were undoubtedly cats . . . but so was Adolf Hitler. I'm guessing that Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was a red-blooded, your-opinion-truly-matters dog. A great guy, but not the best choice to solve a national crisis. Give me a cat-leader any day when we're staring down the Iranians.

I'm not naive enough to think that anyone, including myself, is all cat or all dog. Most firefighters I know are dog-like, in that they care about others and want to help. Why else would you allow the world to keep you on a short leash called 911? Put a firefighter in charge of the fireground, on the other hand, and he or she must be a cat or things will go south quickly.

The ideal leader would be able switch back and forth between cat and dog styles effortlessly as the need arose. That's why ideal leaders don't exist, by the way. The higher you rise in leadership, the less you see the need for dog-style consultation.

You can read more about the dilemma created by trying to please others in my February column for Firefighting in Canada.

The recently released Drummond Report is a case of cats talking to cats. That's a really scary thought. I haven't had the patience to sit down and actually read it, but from what I hear, both polarized views are likely bad news in the end. Whether both sides honestly believe that they represent the best interests of the province or not, both assuredly care little about anyone else's opinion. And it's almost guaranteed that the volunteer fire service hasn't even entered either side's mind as a consideration of importance.

If you want a more educated perspective on the Drummond Report, you can read Laura King's blog post here.

Political consultation isn't all a waste of time, in spite of my gloomy surmisings. Eventually the issues important to dogs become big enough that even the cats take notice because all of their nine lives depend on it.

When that happens, the dogs that have their ducks in a row will be heard. Thus saith the doggish ant from Upsala.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Unapologetically (But Politely) Opinionated

A while ago one of my readers commented about the fact that I rated some of my featured links as being "boring, but useful."  The rating was only half serious, and quite honestly I never expected anyone to notice, but I had to concede that "boring" was a harsh judgement to render. In fact, I once wrote that the most terrifying verdict a speaker can hear is that she or he is boring (see my January 2009 column).

The cold dry fact, however, is that it's nearly impossible to make all useful information entertaining. There are certain textbooks you read, certain speakers to which you listen, and certain websites you visit because they offer what you need, not because they make you feel good.

While we're on the topic of rating websites, you might have noticed that I rated my Spontaneous Combustion articles as "Entertaining but not necessarily useful." I'm not sure which is worse - being boring or useless.

Speaking of Spontaneous Combustion (which is hopefully neither boring nor useless), I finally updated the link on the sidebar, and it will now take you to the most recent installment. Or if you are too lazy to find the link on the sidebar, you can click here.

I didn't just rate you as lazy if you didn't go to the sidebar. Or did I. Hmmmm.

Some of my friends have recommended that I curb my opinionated ramblings, seeing that I now hold the precarious position of temporary manager of the Pre-Service Fire Program. They may have a point, but I don't flatter myself that anyone pays that much attention. The fact that someone who is somebody actually read and gave feedback on my "boring but useful rating" was flattering, but definitely unusual. 

Now I feel like I just rated those who commented on my posts in the past as not being "somebodies." If I did, I definitely retract that rating.

On a vaguely connected theme (and as a means of suggesting you to read more of my hopefully entertaining stuff), you can read my musings about the ups and downs of not being taken seriously here (no link on the side bar this time, so no accusations of laziness). 

You gotta wonder how a blog post can spiral out of control to this extent. 

On a completely unrelated topic, I missed an opportunity to hear Margaret Trudeau yesterday. I was busy doing important stuff and didn't realize she was a two minute walk from my office giving an entertaining and useful talk on maintaining a balanced and healthy mental state of mind. It isn't a topic that has instant appeal to me, but, in my opinion, the fire service hasn't paid enough attention to the topic. I know I didn't take it seriously enough until recently.

Wrangling myself back to the original topic of harsh ratings, I wasn't repentant enough to change the ratings on the links on my sidebar. Or maybe I was just too lazy. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Superbowl Sunday Syndrome

Years ago I saw a cartoon of a mom and two knee-high kids in turnout gear by a fire truck with a charged hose, ready to attack a fully involved house in the background. The frazzled occupants stood in the driveway with question marks over their heads. The caption read:

"What did you expect on Superbowl Sunday?"

That might only be funny if you live in a small community served by volunteer firefighters. Or maybe it isn't funny at all, especially if you live in a small community served by volunteer firefighters. Whatever your perspective, it is a caricature of reality for lots of under-staffed departments.

Volunteer firefighters are the butt of many jokes about saving basements, slow response times, and wannabe firefighter behaviour. As chief of a volunteer department for a lot of years, my coping strategy in the face of this teasing was to laugh along with the rest, knowing full well that the mockers had no clue of what our reality was.

Kind of like me poking fun at politicians. I have little clue what their reality actually is. I should hold my opinions until I've walked a mile in their moccasins. Except that most of them don't wear moccasins. Even if they did, I don't plan to walk in them any time soon, so I'd be holding my opinions for a long time. It's much more fun to satirize these very large targets, even though I don't have enough information to be completely fair. Which is why people make fun of volunteer firefighters.

Here's where I should go into a tirade about volunteers doing a lot with a little, and saving lives on a shoestring budget, and how society is wrong to marginalize these essential public servants who often work for free . . . but no one listens to tirades, and I already talked about it in my June 12 post (in which I talk about the one-eyed king ruling in the land of the blind).

The moral of the story: if you live in the 80% of Canada served by volunteers, give them a break this weekend and be safe so they can watch the game.

And if you are a volunteer firefighter who is a Superbowl fan . . . keep your pager and your DVR handy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

the nature of the job

I frequently am asked, "What exactly are you doing now?" For fifteen years my answer to that question was a fairly straight forward, "I'm a fire chief," except that I always had to add, "of a microscopic village in Northwestern Ontario . . . oh, and I'm also the training officer, the inspector, the investigator, the public relations officer, the janitor, the secretary, the maintenance man, Head of Security, Chief of Technical Support (ha ha), Head Mechanic (rolling on the floor in hilarious laughter now), The Guy Who is Supposed to Know Everything, and the Guy Responsible if Anything Goes Wrong at Anytime (not funny at all) . . ."

My job description is less complex now. I'm the Manager for the Pre Service Firefighter Program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. I'm not an instructor (long, sad sigh), but I get to work with seven talented instructors on a daily basis. In short, my job is to coordinate the program and make sure the instructors have what they need to do their jobs, which is teaching 18 students in the Pre Serice Program.

I do get to hang out with the students sometimes, and I will get to instruct a little upon occasion. I'm not chained to my office (long, happy sigh), and I am surrounded by a wonderful team of support people that all have individual jobs like administration, tech support, and security . . . and who carefully guide me along in this new, strange world where I dont have to do everything. If I need 18 copies of a manual, I fill out a single piece of paper, deliver it the friendly folks at the print shop, and like magic, 18 collated, stapled, two-sided, three-holed copies appear. If my phone or computer doesnt work, I send an email or make a call, and a Harry Potter-style wizard appears to fix the problem. If I need advice, the secretaries down the hall are omniscient. And perhaps best of all, if I cant figure out what my job is, my bosss door is open, and he patiently helps me sort things out.

Does it sound like Im on top of the world yet? Maybe not, but Im getting there.

On another topic, two other Ontario firefighter bloggers have been active, even though I haven`t been. You can read Dispatches here, and Ontario Vol FF here.

Yesterday during an Emergency Patient Care evolution, my cell phone buzzed, and I knew from the number that it was a call out in Upsala. Car vs. train. The only thing worse than getting a page like that as a firefighter, is getting a page like that and knowing you cant go. I gave them time to respond, then phoned the Upsala Fire Department scribe. The driver was hurt, but not trapped. My crew was helping package and load him. I went back to the class where my students were diligently applying collars and strapping each other onto backboards under the supervision of paramedics in training. "Pay attention folks. This is where its at," I told them. You can read a brief news story here.

I still call them my crew, but in reality, they arent mine anymore. Upsala hired our former deputy chief, and as of today, Ken Kingston is taking full responsibility for . . . for . . . well, you saw the list, and you know he isnt simply the fire chief.

All the best in your new career, Ken!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I'm still alive

I've made a new record in Beebewitz history. I've gone almost a month without posting. The top of the world seems a little higher and farther than when I made my optimistic prediction before Christmas, but I am working my way there.

Here's a snapshot of what has happened since my last post. Most of it is old news:
  • Canadian Press posted an article about the Meaford trial.
  • Two Canadian volunteer firefighters died, one in a vehicle crash, and the other in an explosion.
  • My latest article is up at the Firefighting in Canada website.
  • My latest article will appear in Canadian Fire & EMS instead of Firefighting in Canada (editorial reasons)
  • My new job is going well, even though I haven't quite reached the top of the world.
  • I am still the Fire Chief of Upsala. The job posting closed Friday, and the Board will hopefully choose a new person soon. I'm ready to move on, even though I haven't quite reached the top of the world.
  • I made my first ever visit to a counsellor. I liked it about as much as a visit to the dentist, but I think it went well.
  • I squeaked my next article in just under the drop-dead deadline, in spite of meetings, working late, writer's block, and a nebulous don't-feel-like-writing cloud that has hung over me for the past month. It will appear in the February issue of Firefighting in Canada (I think).
There you have it. I might be back in the saddle now. Time will tell.

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