Spontaneous Combustion: The best bet

Tim Beebe
March 27, 2009
Written by Tim Beebe
tims_mug  
   
"C’mon Reed, buy a ticket.”

My grandfather kept his wallet firmly in his pocket. “Sorry, I don’t gamble.”
“But all the proceeds are for charity.”

Grandpa hesitated, then pulled out a dollar. “Here, but don’t put me in the draw.”

A few nights later, Grandpa heard honking and voices outside his bedroom window.

“Come out and get your prize Reed!”

He looked out, prepared for a practical joke. Instead, he saw a shiny yellow Crosley convertible. Grandpa’s friend had entered his name, and in spite of his scruples, he hit the jackpot. The car became the primary transportation for my mother and aunt during college.

I think all of us are gamblers to some degree. Look at highway crash statistics. Just my small department responds to 25 or 30 vehicle crashes a year on our lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. Considering that a rough average of 2,500 vehicles drive through here every day, those aren’t bad odds for the travelling public, but smart people still use lucky charms called seatbelts.

Some folks avoid anything that looks like gambling. I heard about a guy who didn’t like life insurance. His reasoning? He didn’t want to bet the insurance company he was going to die. And it seemed strange the insurance company was betting he wasn’t. An unusual way of looking at things, but it makes sense in a weird kind of way.

Firefighters are not exempt from taking a gamble now and then. In my rural department, we make a decision early on at every fire: is a pumper and tanker enough water to do the job? If not, the porta-tank comes off the truck and we start a water shuttle. This takes time and manpower – which we usually don’t have – so sometimes we hook the tanker directly to the pumper and go for broke. It only takes a few minutes to know if we made the right choice.
You might argue that a calculated decision isn’t a gamble. You do your size-up and make your decision. Simple.

Except that there always seems to be that unknown factor that you find out after the place burns into the basement.
Of course, there are things that we do know ahead of time. In many northern departments mutual aid is so far away that they’ll arrive just in time to roast marshmallows. We don’t mind sharing, but they can roast them just as well over their own basements, so we don’t usually bother calling.

Other things you learn on the spot, like the time a trucker stuffed a mitt full of papers in my hands and wished me luck as he took off the other way. His burning truck was carrying corrosives, flammable liquids and radioactive materials. We managed the incident safely, but afterward I had to admit that we left a little too much to luck.
Luck? Now that’s even scarier than gambling. It could be defined as that last-ditch, end-of-the-rope factor that swings the balance in our favour when all else fails. It’s an interesting study to examine the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lucky charms and quirky rituals we firefighters enlist to encourage fate’s smile; shamrocks, lucky coins, St. Florian necklaces. Some firefighters religiously refuse to clean their helmets. Most will give you a severe look if you say, “Man, it’s been quiet lately.” Some departments have superstitions about food. We went through a spell where we’d get a call every time one of our crew ate chocolate cake with a spaghetti dinner. It started out as a humorous observation, but after the third time we began to wonder. My kids even started picking up on it.

Many of us vehemently deny any superstitions, but even a skeptic like me has to wonder sometimes. Last fall, a hunter asked me if we responded to many moose hits on the highway. I said we did a few, but hadn’t had any for a while. Oops. I had this weird feeling as the words came out my mouth, but I consciously told myself that I didn’t believe that superstitious stuff. You weren’t going to catch me knocking on wood. A few hours later, my pager went off with a report of car versus moose east of Upsala.

I still don’t believe in luck, and I’m definitely not a gambler, but I would never bash this rich, superstitious culture of the fire service, especially if we do all we can on the rational side of looking after ourselves. Wear your shamrock and fasten your seatbelt. Keep the lucky quarter in your pocket as you don your SCBA. Hang St. Florian around your neck and religiously attend training. Last, but not least, teach the kids about fire safety while you avoid saying how quiet it’s been. Is there any value in the extras, or is life only about hard, cold choices that result in hard, cold consequences?

In his much-acclaimed inaugural speech, U.S. President Barack Obama talked about the “sapping of confidence” caused by economic woes and dismal world events. Fear causes paralysis. If nothing else, maybe those extra little things we do give us that bit of confidence we need when our careful plans go awry, and the unexpected happens. The family photo in your helmet reminds you that there is someone to go home to. That uneasy feeling you have when you eat spaghetti and chocolate cake prepares you for duty that sometimes trumps pleasure.
I went to my locker today and looked at my gear. The helmet really is dirty. I guess it tells me we’ve survived some nasty fires, and that they always do go out in the end.  Strangely, I always thought it meant I was just too lazy to wash it. 

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 .

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