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Spontaneous Combustion: May 2012

Upsala duty officer, call dispatch.”

April 20, 2012
By Tim Beebe

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Upsala duty officer, call dispatch.”

The message, crackling over my pager, signified something out of the ordinary. If it were a fire, a vehicle crash or other “normal” emergency, they would have just dispatched us. I picked up the phone and dialed the Central Ambulance Communication Centre (CACC).

“Hi, what’s up?”

“A cat in a tree,” the dispatcher said, stifling a giggle.

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“A cat? We don’t do cats,” I said in a firm, I-mean­­-business tone.

“I know you don’t, but the caller is an older gentleman who can’t climb a ladder, and says the cat is his only family, and it’s getting dark and . . . could you just go take a look?”

Upsala Fire Department wasn’t particularly busy, so I agreed to go, even though my good friend Frank (who has refused more than his share of feline rescues), maintains that he’s never seen a cat skeleton in a tree. While en route, I discussed this singular conundrum with the officer who accompanied me. Why does an acrophobic cat climb trees in the first place? Odd as that may be, a sizeable portion of the fire service is in a similarly peculiar predicament.

A hundred years ago, fire departments were virtually non-existent in most places outside urban centres. Gradually over the years, the service grew, and climbed the tree of public expectations, offering more and better services to more of the population. It spread to the point that even a small village like Upsala, Ont., has acquired a pumper, a tanker, and a rescue, staffed by a hardy band of volunteers.

Upsala Fire Department is a microscopic snapshot of the evolution of fire fighting. Our first mechanized firefighting equipment was a portable pump package, received with coats, long boots, and training, compliments of the Office of the Fire Marshal.

Over the years we acquired more apparatus and equipment to better meet the needs of our community. With each new acquisition, our service capabilities increased, and the metaphoric cat inched higher up the tree of public expectation. The crowning glory was a set of heavy hydraulic extrication tools, enabling us to service the highway on either side of the village, and shorten the hour-long trip that our neighbouring departments made for vehicle rescue.

Reaching a pinnacle is one thing. Staying there is another. The forest industry faltered, jobs were lost, and people moved away. The public still needed the level of service that we had so bravely achieved, but our volunteer pool had dwindled by 30 per cent. Having clawed our way up, though, we had no intention of coming down.

Taking a look at the bigger picture, the fire service across Canada faces a diverse array of problems, including insufficient funding, inadequate training, and recruitment crises. From Nunavut to Nanaimo, however, all are unified by the fact that the service we provide was built on a support base, which, at best, is fading and, at worst, has ceased to exist. Big departments like Toronto are not exempt. Last year Toronto Fire Services was told to slash its budget by 10 per cent. The very survival of some small departments has been threatened.

The logical thing to do when a public service is in trouble is to appeal to those who control the money. Over the past few years, fire-service leaders across the country have knocked on politicians’ doors, sent emails, made phone calls, and set up meetings to lobby for help. In fairness, some of our elected officials have championed the cause and have made a positive impact – such as the volunteer firefighter tax credit – but the prevailing view of those who hold the purse strings is that we are yet another cat in another funding tree that will probably figure out its own way down if ignored long enough.

The problem is that they are right. When support is cut, we work out a way to make do with less. The flip side of the coin is that making do often involves responding with fewer people, or squeezing more life out of outdated equipment. The potential harm of such measures outweighs any advantage.

The other problem is that we are not perceived by the federal and provincial purse string holders as being their cat. Again, they are not entirely wrong. The origins of most fire departments lie with local people who wanted to protect their homes and families, not with government-created institutions.

Like the acrophobic cat that we rescued that day, the fire service is reluctant to climb down from the high level of service it now provides – and it should be. We worked hard to get there. We are in danger, however, of having our ladder of support hauled away to rescue more important cats. A hundred years from now, I wonder if our great-grandkids will find only the skeleton of today’s fire service in the tree of public service.


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