Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Spontaneous Combustion: January 2012

By Tim Beebe   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

We’re lost, aren’t we Frank.” Frank peered through the trees, then studied his compass.

We’re lost, aren’t we Frank.” Frank peered through the trees, then studied his compass. The needle wobbled uncertainly. “I think it’s this way,” he said, heading off in a slightly different direction.

A compass was the navigational tool of choice in the days before GPS units, but on that December afternoon in 1978, minerals from an old mining claim had caused the magnetic devices to act like a drunk on New Year’s Eve. Even a rookie like me realized we were walking in circles when we stumbled upon fresh snowshoe tracks in this uninhabited wilderness. The sun and the temperature were both sinking, and we were miles from our destination. Not good.

I believe that every firefighter enters the service equipped with a moral compass. Career or volunteer, young or old, we know – at least we think we know – what is right and wrong. I also believe that every firefighter will face situations in which his or her compass needle will wobble like a drunk on New Year’s Eve. It’s true – our instinctive care for our communities and loyalty to the job have historically navigated us through a wilderness of black and white choices, but we also face a wasteland of misty-grey issues that are not so clear-cut, and that can skew even the noblest perception of right and wrong.

For example, Upsala is surrounded by unincorporated territory not served by any fire department – no-man’s land, as we call it. In the days when we ran solely on donations and goodwill, we responded to fires in these areas because we considered the residents to be our neighbours. It was the right thing to do. With the establishment of the Upsala Local Services Board, we gained the ability to collect taxes, but this new revenue source came with a boundary. People on the inside paid an annual tax for service, but those outside didn’t. Houses in no-man’s land still caught fire after the switch . . . and their owners still called us to put them out. Our moral compasses continued to direct us to help our neighbours, but we had wandered into unfamiliar territory where other forces were at work. What would happen if a taxpayer’s house caught fire while we were on a response in no-man’s land?


A Tennessee department made national headlines for its choice in a similar dilemma in the fall of 2010. Their particular system, which required residents to pay an annual fee for service, worked fine until a non-paying family’s house caught fire. The department refused to put it out, causing a storm of controversy, name-calling, and even threats. The flurry of opinions generated by the incident showed that right and wrong, much like beauty, are in the eyes of the beholders. The incident highlighted the uncomfortable, and even unfair, pressures that firefighters face when policy goes against what is expected by the public.

A fire department in California gained notoriety last spring when it stood by while a man drowned himself in San Francisco Bay. The chief defended the decision saying that, due to budget cuts, his crews did not have the proper training or equipment to act. Once again, firefighters were forced into a position in which, depending on your point of view, there was arguably more than one right and one wrong. It’s right for firefighters to protect citizens. It’s wrong for the public to expect them to enter any hostile environment, including a shallow bay, without proper training and equipment. It’s right for firefighters to stay within their training. Some viewed it as wrong that they didn’t abandon a flawed policy when they had an opportunity to save a life.

Not all debatable responses have sad endings. An Ohio firefighter entered a burning building alone last summer while his partner set up an attack line. I am sure the firefighters knew their policies about fire-ground staffing and RIT, but if they had waited for more resources to arrive, the two trapped occupants might have perished. The firefighters made the rescue, and were rightfully hailed as heroes. If they had been injured or killed, on the other hand, the armchair quarterbacks would have torn their choices to shreds. We don’t have a crystal ball to foresee the end result in dire situations, but we will always be judged by the end result after the dust settles.

Good policy will reduce, not eliminate, the need for crews to make hard choices. Policy makers orbit around liability, with consideration for the nebula of right and the black hole of wrong. Firefighters gravitate toward the choice that looks right in spite of the black hole of policy. Both viewpoints are dangerous in isolation of each other. I recall a conversation many years ago in which I was cautioned against relying on moral reasoning to justify a course of action.

Logistics and circumstances were more reliable gauges, I was told. I didn’t like the advice then, and I’m not sure that I do now. I have come to realize that sole reliance on my opinion of right versus wrong, as perceived in the moment of crisis, is like trusting a compass in a room full of magnets.

The magnetic north hadn’t moved on that December afternoon more than 30 years ago. We were lost because our perception of its location had changed. Through a combination of perseverance, intuition and luck, we managed to find our way back to the cabin, but we learned the hard way that our compasses were only as good as the outside forces that influenced them. Similarly, perseverance, intuition, and – I hate to admit – luck, have saved us in the fire service as well, and I’d like to say that if we couple them with sound policy, we’ll come out right in the end. I fear, however, that the forces of civil liability and the perception of entitlement will continue to influence our moral bearings. In the absence of a crystal ball, we need the invention of a moral GPS.

Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at and check out his blog at

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