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Spontaneous Combustion: October 2010

DO YOU LIKE OUR COUNTRY’S FOOD?” I kept my eyes fixed on the narrow ribbon of mountain road and shifted in the driver’s seat to dodge the blast of alcohol breath from the rear of the van. “Um, yes.”

October 18, 2010
By Tim Beebe

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DO YOU LIKE OUR COUNTRY’S FOOD?”

I kept my eyes fixed on the narrow ribbon of mountain road and shifted in the driver’s seat to dodge the blast of alcohol breath from the rear of the van. “Um, yes.”

“OK!” boomed the reply from the back seat, followed by roars of laughter. It was midnight, and I was the new designated driver for a tiny Japanese village where I sojourned for a few years. My passengers were well soused, the language barrier had crumbled and cultural inhibitions had vanished.

“DO YOU LIKE OUR CARS?” I negotiated a hairpin curve faster than necessary, hoping to quiet them down, but no one seemed to care that a wrong move would launch us off the precipice like a hang glider without wings.

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“DO YOU LIKE OUR GIRLS?”

My sheepish, “Not sure,” triggered more howls of laughter. Just then, spatters of rain hit the windshield, and I fumbled for the wiper control on the unfamiliar dashboard. My hand hit the headlights by mistake and the road went dark. I ignored the sudden hush and careened around another hairpin before switching them on again.

“GOOD DRIVER, GOOD DRIVER,” my much meeker passengers croaked in unison. The clumsy bluffing stunt quieted them briefly, and 20 minutes later I deposited the group at their destination.    

I learned two things that night. First, passengers care little about the driver as long as they feel safe. Second, a glimpse of possible disaster briefly gains their attention.

Such is the state of the fire service. We are firmly in the driver’s seat of the fire protection bus, and our passengers – the public – party in the back while we avoid the precipices. Aside from heckling us once in a while, why should they care about our affairs? After all, it’s our duty to remain at the wheel.

Maybe . . . but maybe not.

If Montreal, or Toronto or Vancouver abolished their fire departments, governments would step in. In smaller communities though, things are different. Premiers and ministers and fire marshals could issue a joint edict compelling the village of Upsala (population 183) to buck up and provide service, but if we refuse to volunteer, the edict is merely a fire starter for the next barbecue fundraiser.

Wandering River Fire Department in northern Alberta showed us what can happen when passengers ignore the driver for too long. In June, its members suspended service, stating that their roster of seven was insufficient to safely handle calls on Highway 63. These dedicated volunteers didn’t just switch off the lights. They parked the bus and pulled the keys. Their now attentive passengers were mostly supportive, but the bashers’ comments flashed like red warning lights: “How shameful!” “Stop whining and do the job!” “What about the poor drivers on Highway 63?”

The naysayers hadn’t yet discovered that goodwill and community spirit can’t be bullied. The Alberta government knew better than to try that tactic but its response was predictable and equally lame: “Fire protection is a municipal responsibility.”

“We don’t have the budget to help you.” “We’ve nearly finished a study on volunteer recruitment and retention.”

Here we have the richest province in Canada, with the oil sands generating billions of revenue dollars just north of Wandering River. We have seven firefighters responding to scores of calls on the only highway between Edmonton and the oil sands. And the solution is a study?

These attitudes are not new. Small communities are accustomed to providing their own services. We know we must volunteer if we want a hockey team or a curling club . . . or a fire department. No one else really cares until they crash on our stretch of highway.

To be fair, the Ontario government assists with fire protection in small, northern communities but the program provides only a fraction of what is needed. Without lots of local cash, and hordes of volunteers, the fire department would stall. Police and ambulance are funded like essential services but fire protection is funded like a peewee hockey club.

The budget makers say that there is only so much money in the finance pie. If we cut a larger slice for the fire service, health care, education or social services will go hungry. That is only one side of the funding puzzle. Hundreds of millions of dollars were available for a three day G8/G20 summit. Billions of dollars materialized when the public was spooked by H1N1, 9/11 and Y2K. It’s not a lack of funds, it’s a lack of will.

We could resort to the doomsday approach to leverage more funding. Imagine 125,000 volunteer firefighters marching toward Ottawa, clad in sandwich boards bearing this message: “The end is near! Extinction is at hand! Repent in sackcloth and ashes! (Or at least drop a few coins in a firefighter’s hat, for St. Florian’s sake).”

But that isn’t our style. We hate politicking. We care too much to abandon the driver’s seat, unless, like Wandering River, our safety is at stake. In normal labour negotiations, the workers hope that their employer cares more about the company mission than they do. But this is far from normal.

A few years ago I suggested to a regional police staff sergeant that we might eventually decline response on a certain remote bush road. His answer summed up the situation of the volunteer firefighter: “As long as you keep responding, we’ll keep calling.”

Here lies the enigma: Our passengers care too little. Our volunteers care too much. We are our own worst enemy, and everyone knows it.


Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at upsalafd@tbaytel.net and check out his blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com


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