Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Spontaneous Combustion: January 2010

By Tim Beebe   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

Can I have that in writing?”

Can I have that in writing?”

There was silence on the other end of the line. Finally the government official said, “I have to check with my supervisor.”

I sent him a follow-up e-mail and, to his credit, he replied a month later. His advice? Contact another government office with my questions . . . the same office that had referred me to him a month earlier.

Bureaucrats – the kryptonite of all action-oriented, get-’er-done, superhero citizens. They’re from the government and they’re here to help . . . sort of. As firefighters, our feet are firmly fixed in reality, and we know it. We combat disaster, sorrow and suffering with courage, compassion and physical aid. From this occupational high ground it is easy to take potshots at these unfortunate government appointees who are mired in the quicksands of policy and procedure. Some are so stuck they couldn’t dodge a rotten tomato to save their lives. But not all bureaucrats are spineless societal leeches. In fact, a bureaucrat might live closer to home than you care to admit.


During a conversation with another government agent, I made a flippant comment about being smothered by bureaucracy. He laughed pleasantly, a good sign that he didn’t take himself too seriously. Then he dropped the bomb: “You know Tim, you’re a bureaucrat too.”

Way to burst my bubble, man. I couldn’t escape the bald facts: fire chiefs are appointed, not elected; we exercise delegated authority and we work for a government office, also known as . . . a bureau. I would have been utterly dejected by this revelation except that I don’t take myself too seriously either.

To regain peace for my soul, I turned to the Internet in search of truth. says a bureaucrat is “an official of a bureaucracy.” Hmmm. Sounds like me. takes it a step further: “especially one who follows a routine in a mechanical, unimaginative way, insisting on proper forms, petty rules, etc.” That’s better. I’m not one of those. Honest.

It’s universally accepted that there are bureaucrats but then there are bureaucrats (wrinkle your nose and frown when you say it to get the full effect). Let’s face it though – we need these appointed officials. On the one hand we have elected politicians who know little or nothing about fire protection, building safety, health or any of the essential components in a smooth-running government. On the other hand, we have the well-trained, efficient bureaucrat. Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron, but they are supposed to have the expertise to administer to these areas.

Conversely, bureaucrats are the guys or gals who give the rest a bad name. You know the type. You leave 11 messages on their voice mail over two weeks without a reply. You persist because you have faith in government, or because you’re just plain mad at being ignored. You make one last call, and they pick up the phone, probably because their caller ID is on the fritz. After a few seconds of stunned surprise they exclaim, “What a coincidence! I was just about to call you . . .”

People living in unorganized areas like Upsala have a particular dislike for any bureaucrat. We’ve lived our whole lives without the restraints that fetter our municipal cousins. Our rugged, independent citizens fiercely defend their rights to build whatever they want, demolish whatever they want, renovate whatever they want, whenever they want . . . without the annoyance of codes, permits and inspections. Until the fire chief shows up (as the only real bureaucrat in town) and says, “Hey, maybe I should inspect that . . . that . . . what did you say that thing was again?” It’s best to do those kinds of inspections after tomato season ends.

Rules and regulations are often perceived as a hindrance to progress, an unnecessary nuisance to the hard-working entrepreneur. In theory though, there is purpose behind every inch of governmental red tape. The fire and building codes evolved out of tragedy. Standards like those created by the NFPA are made with our welfare in mind. Operational guidelines are developed to meet specific needs, often safety related. Bureaucracy becomes a problem only when it takes on a life of its own, controlling and manipulating our actions apart from its original purpose. When red tape eclipses our mission, we’ve created a bureaucratic monster.

Ideally, legislation of any kind should help, not hinder, service delivery. The person trapped in a smashed car doesn’t care that he is one kilometre past your boundary. He wants the service you provide, with the tools you have right there, right now. But emergency service management can’t be simplified so easily, especially with hungry packs of legal wolves waiting in the forests of litigation to eat us alive if we lose our way. Unfortunately, we must all be controlled by bureaucracy to some degree . . . and we must all decide for ourselves when to ditch it.

Then there’s me. I’m a paradoxical hybrid: I am solidly entrenched in the real world but the gremlins of bureaucracy still haunt me. They sit on my shoulder, mummified in red tape, and whisper ominous forebodings like, “you’d better follow the book on this one,” and “don’t take that liability risk.” The angel on the other shoulder counters with, “It’s only a dollhouse, stupid. It doesn’t have to meet the fire code.”  It’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. The strain of this double personality has taken its toll and I fear that I’m slipping. I deleted a message the other day without returning the call. Mind you, it was only a telemarketer, but I take it as a warning sign. Perhaps I should make an appointment with my therapist. Or maybe just throw a rotten tomato at the telemarketer. Now there’s an easy target.

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

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