Spontaneous Combustion: July 2009

Tim Beebe
June 22, 2009
Written by Tim Beebe
The boy gripped his hockey stick and crouched in front of the net, his body rigid. The puck bounced like a pinball from player to player, and then across the blue line into his zone. He shifted back and forth, then tensed as the opposing team rushed in for the shot. It came. He dove and missed. The puck clinked off a post and onto the stick of one of his teammates, who whisked it down to the other end. The boy relaxed.

This wasn’t his job. He was filling in – without proper gear – for the goalie who must have overslept on this tournament morning.

“That kid has guts,” I commented to a friend. “No proper pads, and probably no training.”

“The goalie’s job isn’t complicated,” he replied. “All he has to do is keep that black thing out of the net.” A cruelly succinct job description but I’m sure Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy would tell you it isn’t a cakewalk.

Our job can be summarized quite easily too. A firefighter puts water on . . . well, on fires. Public opinion about us waxes and wanes with the moon, like it does with hockey.

There is one major difference though. People care about the NHL. They rarely give the firefighter a thought, especially the volunteer firefighter. If you want an example, look at an average player’s salary. It’s more than the combined budgets of 20 northwestern Ontario volunteer fire departments. And what do you think the television ratings would be for Volunteer Night in Canada, or Firefighter’s Corner?

Sure, people shower praise when they see a guy dangling from a helicopter or bringing a baby out from a smoke-filled building. And they should. Politicians like to talk about us saving taxpayers a billion dollars. Talk is cheap. And what happens when we don’t measure up to public expectations? We become pincushions in the coffee shop gossip sessions.

You’ve heard the expression, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.” My experience is that people at least expect it to be a duck. When we show up with a big red truck and a crew in turnout gear, people want the hero show to begin. Never mind that our numbers are few, our trucks were built when Mats Sundin was in grade school and our volunteers have less time to train than the peewee hockey team. As a fire chief, my biggest fear is that the duck in a white helmet might turn out to be a goose.

It’s time to take a deep breath and reassess our goals based on the support that we can realistically expect. I once heard that cabinet makers count their fingers before a job then count them again afterward – if the numbers match, it was a good day. This is a realistic perspective for many departments. The whole incident can go south but all is not lost if every helmet is put away by the guy who wore it. The public may not like it when there is just a basement full of water left to show for our work but, as they say, you get what you pay for.

Years ago I wrote a pamphlet delineating the timeline of a fire response – 10 easy steps to watching your home burn down: ignition; detection; escape; call for help; page out; assembly at the hall; gear up; respond to the scene; set up; apply water. In rural Canada, this doesn’t happen in five minutes, or even 10 usually. The message was simple – get yourself out, because we won’t make it in time. The truth isn’t always popular.

The Japanese have a proverb: “We learn little from victory, much from defeat.” It’s time to enlighten the public about our defeats. This is tough, because it goes against the grain. We’re supposed to put our best foot forward. No one wants to board a sinking ship. The flip side is that our citizens need to know that they’re already on board, like it or not. It’s time to tell them that our options are limited when we show up with four firefighters – and no more – at a structural fire. And that reliance on a 25-year-old pumper is like racing the Indy 500 in a Model T. If we lose, our failure is the community’s failure. We’re on the same team. Somehow that message gets lost when we’re in the penalty box of public opinion, or worse, the courtroom.

Up until 1988, Upsala’s fire department was a bucket brigade. The neighbours swarmed to smoke like bees to honey. We knew we were going to lose, but it felt good to try. Public expectation soared with our first fire truck but our supply of resources levelled off. There are fire departments that have no business doing interior attack on most days. My department is one of them. This is not going to change, so it’s time we speak up.

Upsala does a lot of things well. We rescue people on the highway and help dozens more. We save exposures and occasionally the structure of origin. Firefighters are experts at improvisation – we know how to make do. If necessity is the mother of invention, then firefighters are the Edisons of emergency response. This is a tremendous strength but potentially an Achilles heel. “Why should we buy you a new truck? You’ve been keeping that one running for 25 years.”

The poor kid at the beginning of this column did eventually get relief. The real goalie showed up well rested and ready to keep “that black thing” out of the net and save the day. There is no one to save the day for us. We are it, ready or not. 

Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and check out his blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com

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