Spontaneous Combustion: October 2011
Against the tide
Written by Tim Beebe
"Hi there,” I said, pressing the cell phone to my ear to drown out traffic. “I’m at the airport. Can I get a ride to the hotel?”
“Certainly,” said the hotel clerk. “From which terminal?”
“Oh,” I said, feeling the wind ooze out of my sails, “there’s more than one terminal?” Somehow I had missed this important piece of navigational trivia when I plotted my course to Toronto from Upsala.
“There are three, sir.”
“Three? Three? Um, actually . . . I have no clue. What if I gave you a few landmarks? I see a concrete overpass, some pillars with numbers, and a bunch of tall buildings with . . .”
“What airline did you travel with sir?
“Stay right where you are, and someone will be along soon.”
A short time later, like magic, a shuttle bus appeared and gave me safe passage through the tangled maze of city, right to the doorstep of my hotel. Whew.
Successful journeying requires knowledge of three basic pieces of information: your current location, your desired destination and a practical means to get from here to there. My firm grasp on two of the three was not sufficient, and without the helpful clerk, my journey would have ended at the airport.
The road to effective fire service, unlike a simple trip to Toronto, is more like travelling up a downward escalator. If you run, you might be able to advance. If you walk, you may keep your current position. If you stand still, you will certainly end up behind. Many of us have stood still too long, and our destination dangles like a carrot, far out of reach.
We all have ideas about where we would like our departments to be. We might even think we have a plan to get there. The downward escalator, however, can skew our perception of where we currently are. Upsala advanced by leaps and bounds in the latter half of the 1990s, recruiting, training and acquiring equipment. Then it was tempting to take a deep breath and relax a little. Time – our enemy – never relaxes though, causing the playing field to perpetually change. Even the best training needs updating. Technology expands and brings new hazards as well as new solutions . . . which demand more training. Volunteer staffing ebbs and flows like the Bay of Fundy, only less reliably. One day our department looks just fine. The next day some ungodly substance spills into our backyard, and we realize the escalator has left us far behind in the dust of unpreparedness.
Time and money are two commodities required to make progress. Both are in short supply in the cultural recession facing small departments. If the level of service we say we provide were measured against applicable standards, we might find ourselves further behind than we thought. This is a dismal prospect, and some say we should cut back our services. I’m not sure that’s the best answer to the problem.
Dan Gardiner, retired fire chief in Fairfield, Conn., asked an interesting question in his presentation at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference last spring. “Would you enter a burning building without a partner, and without your protective clothing?”
The newest rookie knows it would break every standard in the book, but the audience, seasoned by years of trick questions, knew better than to take the bait. Later in the presentation, Gardiner offered a scenario where an off-duty firefighter sees a house with smoke coming from an upstairs window, and stops to help. He pounds on the door and gets no answer. He opens the door and sees an elderly person on the floor, five steps into the smoke-free entranceway. What should he do? The second floor is burning. He has no partner, and no protective clothing. The technically correct answer might still be wait for help, but you and I both know what we would do.
Small departments, and perhaps even some bigger ones, are confronted with nebulous situations on a regular basis. Standards that say thus-and-so are in place, while reality and common sense dictate otherwise. Sean Tracey made a good case in his NFPA Impact column in the August issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, saying that departing from standards is a dangerously slippery slope. Vince MacKenzie made an equally valid point in his Volunteer Vision column in the June issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, stating many small departments are kidding themselves if they think they can comply. The litigators and government watchdogs eye us from the wings, waiting until we make a fateful choice before swooping down with their judgment on the matter.
Agencies like the NFPA provide these standards to help us identify our GPS co-ordinates in the journey to providing safe, effective service. Government agencies use standards as benchmarks for enforcement. If applied without appropriate support, however, standards only add to the escalating downstream rush that threatens to wash away small departments like a flash flood in a desert gully. Should volunteer departments have different standards than career? I won’t weigh in on that debate, except to say that if standards are enforced equally upon all, funding and support must be provided equally to all.
The fire-protection world is not equal. I foresee a day when standards could be used to bludgeon small communities right back into the dark ages of the bucket brigade. If, on the other hand, they are used as tools to identify where we currently are, and if support is forthcoming to take us to where we should be, then perhaps standards will actually provide some real benefit to small departments. In the meantime, we face the choice of whether to take those five steps, or wait for backup that might not be coming.
There is no magic shuttle bus to transport us into the future. Instead of a helpful clerk who desires to guide us to our destination safely, we might only get a gruff police officer who says, “Here’s a map. Figure it out yourself.” For now, our destiny is in our own hands if we want to outrun the downward escalator.
Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at
and check out his blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com