Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Spontaneous Combustion July 2010

By Tim Beebe   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

Fire at the Thompsons’ house!”

Fire at the Thompsons’ house!”

We grabbed pails and shovels, piled into an old, beat up van and made a dash for the smoke column that stained the blue winter sky. Minutes later, we arrived at a desperate scene of enthusiastic chaos. Men, women and children hurled water and snow at flames that blasted from every nook and cranny of the building. When the roof caved in, tactics changed and we started cooling adjacent structures – “exposure protection,” as it’s called in the fire service. The house burned to the ground, and the community pitched in to help the Thompsons relocate and rebuild their lives. That was Upsala 30 years ago.  
Fires like the one at the Thompsons’ prompted us to form the Upsala Fire Protection Team in 1987, through a partnership with the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal. Many of the bucket brigadiers were charter members. We were now empowered to save our tiny corner of the world.

The transformation from helpful neighbours to public entity was not just a warm, fuzzy transaction that furnished more litres per minute. It was a quantum leap that contained a new hazard called civil liability – an outlandish concept to our simple, rural minds. Now we could be sued for helping the neighbours. Sued? Are you nut-house, lunatic crazy? But Pandora’s box had been opened, and “I just wanted to help” was not a defensible position in court. The road to due diligence, we were told, was laced with legal terrorists and judicial roadside bombs. It was a precarious tightrope act, balancing empowerment in one hand with accountability in the other. Fall off the rope and you cause a life-altering explosion.

Society expects us to respond in a competent manner. We’ve got the equipment, we’ve got the training and we’ve got to use it properly. If we don’t, we’ve got the devil to pay. Here’s the problem though: in places like Upsala, our roots and mindset are still in the bucket brigade. In those days, if someone had said, “My house burned because the neighbours didn’t bring enough pails,” we would have replied, “No, your house burned because it caught fire. Our pails had nothing to do with it.” I suspect the courts would have agreed. Now that we have trucks and turnouts, we can be examined under a microscope if someone thinks our response was inadequate. The perception has changed, but in many cases the dynamics haven’t. We’re still the neighbours that just want to help.


Here’s another problem: we don’t actually “have” the trucks and turnouts. We are merely stewards of a community-owned asset. Rural fire fighting in Canada isn’t a lucrative business, and we aren’t greedy capitalists who balance the prospect of wealth with the risk of going broke. It isn’t even like other professions that provide high-paying jobs and lifelong benefits to balance out the legal hazards. If volunteer firefighters perform well, we hang up our helmets and go home. If we perform poorly, we beat ourselves up and try to learn from our mistakes. . .

but we still want to hang up our helmets and go home. The “pay” and “benefits” are the same, either way.

Imagine that a new company arrives in your neighbourhood and posts this job ad:
Are you looking for the opportunity of a lifetime? Do you want a unique career that offers a stimulating environment, and a creative compensation package? XYZ has the position for you! Enjoy interruptions to your daily (and nightly) life. Experience missing out on family time and social events. You will perform miracles with worn out equipment and trucks that were state –of –the art 25 years ago. We provide the ultimate in flexible scheduling (you’ll be on call 24/7, including weekends and holidays). Previous experience is an asset, but not required. Our attractive compensation package includes alternating praise and insults from clients, and all-expenses-paid excursions to hot, smoky places. Work like a dog! Sweat like a horse! Wake up exhausted Monday morning in plenty of time to work your day job. As an added bonus, you will earn shares in the high-risk/low-return civil litigation market, with dividends that include possible trips through the judicial meat grinder. Does this sound like the opportunity you’ve been waiting for? Join XYZ Volunteer Fire Department. We’ll make sure you don’t have time to regret it.   

Yes, I’m trying to be funny. No, I’m not exaggerating. Ask any small, rural department, and you’ll get the same story.

Volunteers are crazy, but they do it anyway. From this perspective, we’ve done well to escape recruitment bankruptcy. And it isn’t any wonder that many departments suffer from low morale and poor attendance at training, which only makes our legal balancing act more convoluted.

The sky isn’t falling . . . yet. The legal climate in Canada, I’m told, is comparatively cooler and more friendly toward the fire service than in other places. But beware of global warming. Lawyers and insurance companies drive climate change in the courts, fuelled by financial gain. They don’t care if they melt our pristine glacial bucket brigade values. Their bulging portfolios have no room for our welfare. Don’t be surprised to see volunteer firefighters increasingly in the hot seat.

Pandora’s box has been opened. There is no going back on the duty to protect, or the responsibilities that accompany it. Our communities owe a debt to the bucket brigadiers who have willingly carried this lopsided burden down the tightrope. The motivation behind the volunteer service is as basic as the elements of water and fire themselves, but will the kids and grandkids of the bucket brigadiers share that motivation? The duty to protect ceases the moment a volunteer hangs up his or her helmet and says, “I quit” . . . or refuses to join in the first place.

Like that day at the Thompsons’ 30 years ago, it’s time for exposure protection.

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

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