Smoke had filled the building. Inside, it was dark, I recall, and oppressively hot. The bulky firefighting equipment I wore was heavy, very heavy, especially the helmet.
Time passes, but where does it go? This element is a much pondered but muddily understood concept. And yet, everything is about time; the time it takes to arrive on scene, to suppress the fire, to save a life. The time you work, the time you play.
Finding candidates that are a good fit for the department is a universal challenge. As psychologist Dr. Lori Gray, said during her seminar at May’s OAFC 2018 show: “The wrong hire can have profound implications for you as a service.” Personal experience is probably bringing a few of these implications to mind now. In addition, she continued, you are not doing justice to candidates by hiring them for a job they are not suited for.
As first responders, the fire service has its lion’s share of stories. Emergencies are unique life events, and some of the stories I’ve heard thus far are quite humourous post-fact and in absence of significant injury — such as ones involving people found in compromising positions after a car crash.
May 18, 2017, Toronto - A firefighter with experience in water-ice rescue testified Wednesday at an inquest examining training deaths that he avoids exercises in icy, swift water because it is too dangerous.
Jan. 19, 2017, Toronto - It’s complicated, this two-hatter issue. But the gist of it is this: an American-based trade union is denying its members the freedom that other Canadians have to work and do what they want in their spare time – build decks, plow snow, fix plumbing, be volunteer/part-time firefighters in their home communities.
Nov. 24, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont. – Sometimes, as an objective and trained observer, it’s fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall, to gather information, filter the rhetoric, and over time, give readers a clear and contextual picture of fire-service issues. That’s what I’m doing (or trying to do, despite some obstacles) this week, at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) mid-term conference in Niagara Falls. While the OAFC unveiled the basics of its new strategic plan Wednesday morning – enhanced communication, revenue generation, government relations, and members services are at the crux of the document – it is, of course, what’s going on in the background that has people talking. While the OAFC is getting its ducks in a row for its four-year plan– more detail was provided and approval sought from members in Thursday’s closed businesses session – the much larger, better organized Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) is ensconced in its legislative conference at Queen’s Park, and it has the ear of the governing Liberals. Although the chiefs association has made considerable strides in government relations recently, the better-financed OPFFA, with a strong presence at the legislature and 13,000 boots on the ground, is, as OAFC executive vice-president Rick Arnel noted Wednesday morning, simply, better resourced. Again this week, the union has caused a bit of a kerfuffle with its fire-medic-turned-fire-paramedic-turned-patients-first proposal, about which the government is asking municipalities for input, and about which the chiefs have not been consulted by government. The two associations met earlier this week; OPFFA president Rob Hyndman and others, with the OAFC board, to pitch the IAFF’s new fire-ground survival protocol; the two groups have also discussed other issues, including the ever-frustrating two-hatter controversy, of which Brampton and Caledon firefighters are the most recent targets. Several people have said this week that Tuesday’s chiefs-union get together was productive and that the two associations can, indeed, work well together on issues. Save, perhaps, the fire-paramedic situation. Bizarrely, the government issued a discussion paper on Monday titled Patients First: Expanding Medical Responses, which, ostensibly, addresses challenges with land-ambulance service and promotes the OPFFA’s proposal to give expanded duties to firefighters who are also employed as paramedics, in a tiered-response situation (it’s not clear how many firefighters also work as paramedics). According to the discussion paper, this approach would be voluntary for municipalities. Any changes, of course, to firefighters’ roles, require amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act. Essentially, the government wants input about the fire-paramedic proposal “to determine service viability and opportunities.” Ontario, of course, post-amalgamation in 1998, has three tiers of government: municipal, regional and provincial. Fire is municipally funded; EMS is regional. And according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), that complicates things. The government document includes no financials, organizational or operations details. Simply, this: “There are three levels of paramedic scope of practice in Ontario. The ministry is exploring the potential option to allow eligible municipalities to choose to allow full-time firefighter to provide care up to the first level (primary care paramedic level).” A companion document – a lengthy survey being sent to stakeholders, including municipalities – however, makes it clear that any new costs would be municipal responsibilities. “Funding responsibility of the optional service will remain at 100% municipal cost,” the survey documents says. “The proposal would be an optional approach that municipalities can choose to implement at councils’ discretion based upon local decision and needs.” AMO has consistently opposed the fire medic proposal since it was first introduced in March 2015. “Municipal governments are deeply concerned about the direct and significant impact of the proposal on municipal emergency services, both financially and operationally,” AMO says on its website. “We will read the [government] discussion paper carefully, but to date, there has been no evidence or cost-benefit analysis seen that shows such an approach would improve patient outcomes.” More bluntly, AMO says that given the lack of evidence, it’s flummoxed that the proposal is a provincial priority given that municipalities would bear all the costs., labour challenges, and risks. “Fire services are 100 [per cent] funded by municipalities and only an elected municipal council has the authority to determine the level and type of fire protection services needed by its community,” AMO says. “We are also concerned that if any municipal council agrees to this proposal it would be replicated throughout Ontario by the current interest arbitration system.” Instead, AMO says, it wants the government to redevelop land-ambulance dispatch to improve patient outcomes. To a fly on the wall and an objective and trained observer, it’s interesting to hear the chatter about issues of the day: frustration that on the one hand, some union members refuse to allow their brethren work as part-time firefighters in their home municipalities, but on the other, could be seen to be impinging on another trade union to guarantee themselves employment longevity.
Nov. 23, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont. - Not once, in Fire Marshal Ross Nichols’ hour-long address to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs on Wednesday, did he claim to be “working on” the myriad initiatives that fire services across the province are anxious to see come to fruition.
Sweat runs down my back and my face is clammy with condensation inside my mask. My jeans stick to my legs, and I’m pretty sure the curls I had put in my hair (only an hour before) have melted into slick strands from the heat. No, I’m nowhere near a fire. Rather, I’m literally lying motionless on a floor in full PPE simulating a dummy while the real pros run through extrication techniques. As I watch them, I also fixate on something making a short-winded Darth Vader sound – and I soon realize that the familiar villain’s trademark is actually coming out of my own air mask. I then become increasingly aware of just how much gear is strapped to me, restricting my movements, and I turn my attention to how I’m going to stand up. My typical Saturday morning does not usually begin this way, but this isn’t just any Saturday. It’s Training Day at FESTI, and even with rain in the forecast nearly a hundred participants have arrived before the sun is even up. I was placed in the firefighter survival course for a full day of training, and I am still blown away at the disposition of both volunteer and career firefighters. Though these training drills are likely routine, they are not easy, especially for a rookie like myself. I followed one firefighter into a two level follow-the-hose simulation. Both of us on oxygen and his face covered with a balaclava to replicate black-out conditions. I declined this added effect, but still crawled on hands and knees behind him as he swept around the low-ceilinged room, manoeuvred down a ladder (gracefully I might add) and still continued to ask me, the one who could see, if I was alright. Later, I crawled through a wooden box with hundreds of wires and cords draped through it designed to snag participants. Trying not to look in any direction but the box’s exit, I distracted myself by thinking that this box of cords might make a great game – something along the lines of an amped up Twister that you could play with friends (I host great parties…). Then I got a little tangled, and it hit me; this type of seriously sticky situation can actually happen, but with fire and smoke looming around the corner. Throw in the possibility that the firefighter may also be low on oxygen, injured or unable to get free and it’s enough to send anyone into a panic. Ditching my interactive game making goals, I pulled myself out of the box and emerged with a heightened awareness of what these people may endure on any given day. I watched as my group blindly crawled through a maze blockaded with furniture, a trap door and low hanging wires. I observed teams of two calmly working together to find their oxygen packs inside a series of metal cages. Drenched in sweat, these guys did not run to the exit to breath fresh air when the task was complete, and instead were eager to review what they could improve upon in the future. I’ve found that completing detailed work in heavy gear by coupling patience with brute force is a far from glamorous job, and not something that everyone is able to do. I quickly learned that a willing personality will only get you so far in this business, especially if you’re a lanky writer, with minor claustrophobia, who’s idea of exercise is a walk around the block. Appreciation is an understatement, but also a word I didn’t realize could mean so much.
Feb. 25, 2016, Milverton, Ont. - The recently released movie Deadpool broke the superhero mold, broke box-office records, and even broke the biggest film risk of all: the fourth wall (the imaginary barrier that separates actors from the audience). Ryan Reynolds' adaptation of the Marvel character was soaked up by everyone who saw the leaked footage, the movie trailer, and then the film itself. Suffice it to say, Deadpool is just as much a social-media success as it is a box-office bonanza.Why?Because it grabs and holds on to people's attention. The movie is funny, raunchy and irreverent. Cast and crew took a cookie-cutter Marvel comic superhero action flick and took the safety off. The finished product is something audiences have never before seen.There's a lesson in Deadpool for fire-service public educators, including me.We obviously cannot suddenly make our smoke- and CO-alarm messaging contain F-bombs. But we can twist the predictability out of it.The general public is exposed to the most vulgar, arguably funny, violent and sarcastic humour ever produced. Every day. Which means any lame attempts to get a fire-safety message across are largely ignored. In fact, your fire department's tweets could be purposefully un-followed because your "Make sure you test your alarms" message is just plain boring.Your first piece of homework is to watch Deadpool. Watch it knowing that, although it is an R-rated film intended for the 18-or-older audience, there are probably more teenagers than adults in the audience. Now look at your public-education messaging and materials, which are likely unchanged from decades ago. While your audience's maturity levels have increased severely for each age group, the fire service's messaging has not kept up the pace.Your next piece of homework is to go on YouTube and watch the popular videos of the day or week. These videos are how today's kids are learning. Videos are how companies introduce us to products. Want to see a tent from Canadian Tire set up? Go on YouTube. Want to know how to remove a battery or change a SIM card in that exact type of cell phone? There are multiple video how-to guides to choose from.While you're on YouTube, search for Slap Chop. This seemingly corny infomercial-type video went viral, because its star, Vince, twisted the predictability out of product demonstration. The energy and enthusiasm of the Slap Chop videos are contagious and make the audience want to try the product. Your next bit of homework is to think about what it would look like if Vince were testing a smoke alarm instead.Finally, your last bit of homework on YouTube is to watch any and all Budweiser commercials, especially ones created for the Superbowl. These videos will teach you what Budweiser has perfected; there may be only one product or one behaviour, (i.e. buy beer) you want to promote, but there are multiple ways to get the message across. From baby Clydesdales to donkeys to beautiful people having a good time, Budweiser hits its target audience from every angle.Now for the final exam. Think about a movie that you saw two, three or even four decades ago. Think E.T. or Ghostbusters. As relevant as those stories are, chances are your kids are absolutely groaning at the so-called special effects or action sequences. That's pretty much how audiences react to our predictable, mainstream fire-safety materials. Your final exam is to Deadpool, Slap Chop or Budweiser at least one set of public education materials. Do something your community has never seen before. Bring new energy and enthusiasm into your project. Send one message using multiple angles.Your next video might not be a summer blockbuster and your materials might not make you millions in revenue, but a cutting-edge take on public education could save lives.
Nov. 13, 2015, Simcoe, Ont. – To Bruce Power from our magazine's main office in Simcoe is a good three and a half-hour drive northwest. Yesterday, in storming conditions, editor Laura King and I made the trip up to tour the much-touted fire training centre and preview cutting-edge sensor technology from Globe.And, like any good participatory journalists, we brought gear in case we had a chance to play!Privately owned Bruce Power nuclear generating station is the largest in the world. And as is befitting for such a massive, city-like facility, it has an awe-inspiring fire department and training centre.It's obvious Bruce Power Fire Chief Brian Cumming is proud of the new $25-million fire-training centre, which opened in April, and we appreciated his enthusiasm to show us around.For years, he said, the department shipped its members out to regional training centres across the province. Now, the department wants other fire services to come train with them.The centre is massive. The storage room alone is spacious, leading to a fitness area, classrooms and, most impressive of all, indoor fire props in multiple rooms. (The indoor aspect was well appreciated on a day with pouring rain and bitter wind!)The props, built by Pro-Safe Fire Training Systems, include replications of a turbine generator and primary-heat transport pump/motor, both one-third the size of those operating on site.As Chief Cumming told us, Bruce Power firefighters need to train as close as possible to the real deal, because a fire in a nuclear plant . . . well, no one wants to be reading about that in the newspapers! Much of the department's focus when not training is on fire prevention.To further the safety of its some 120 full-time firefighters, Bruce Power is testing Globe's WASP (wearable advanced sensor platform) technology, the first department in Canada to do so.Globe's Canadian sales rep Don King and WASP project manager Kathy McNutt were on hand to run a test of the tech. Firefighters wearing the WASP T-shirts ran a simulation with the turbine prop and we watched from the control room as their breathing rate and heart rates increased from the activity. (Look for more details about WASP in an upcoming cover story about new technology.)As a final highlight to the day, Laura and I geared up and took part in an exercise in the vertical motor room – Laura on the foam and me with the water stream. We were swimming in foam by the end.As a writer for, but not member of the fire service, it's always good to experience and appreciate the difficulty of the job.Decidedly well worth the drive.Check out more photos of the tour in our Facebook gallery.
Aug. 4, 2015, Simcoe, Ont. – Almost everyone I spoke with during my time at the Fire Fighters Association of Ontario’s (FFAO) annual convention on the weekend, had pretty much the same thing to say: “We’re a family.” And, frankly, the convention basically looked like a giant family reunion. Hundreds of campers filled a soccer field next to a massive covered picnic area, and everywhere volunteer firefighters and their families sprawled, chatting with their neighbours and watching the activity. The training was over by the time I arrived for the annual general meeting on Saturday, but I made it in time for the trade show and firefighter games. And as anyone would when crashing a family reunion, I sensed the love and support the members have for each other. Touring the grounds with FFAO board member and Township of Centre Wellington Chief Brad Patton after the morning meeting, we were warmly greeted by everyone we came across. With more than 300 firefighters from 55 departments, and almost 100 visitors (i.e. spouses and children), it was the biggest family reunion I’d ever seen. FFAO president and Port Colborne firefighter Chris Karpinchick explained the value of the casual and friendly convention best when he said that yes, formal training and education are important, but, “You learn just as much walking around talking to everyone. ‘We had this call.’ ‘Oh, what did you do there? Oh, we did this and this and this. Hmm, never thought of that, maybe we’ll try that at home.’” Karpinchick is going into his second year as president of the association after taking over from long-time member Dave Carruthers in October. Karpinchick honoured his predecessor during the AGM by presenting him with the president’s award. Karpinchick told me several stories of Carruthers’ dedication to the FFAO and of his continued assistance to him as president. It’s clear the award is well deserved. The association also welcomed three new executive members on the weekend. Next year’s convention is happening again in Wainfleet and organizers are expecting an even larger turnout after word spreads of this year’s success. Now boasting a new, attractive website and a focus on training and education, the association is going places, and it’s hoping to pick up new family members along the way.
May 5, 2015, Simcoe, Ont. – This past weekend was full of lessons and firsts for me in my (relatively) new role of assistant editor. With laptop, camera, phone and tape recorder in tow, I attended my first Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference and trade show in Toronto. Those of you who know me (particularly the ones I met at the conference) will know I’m a total conference newbie. I’m about nine months into the job and learning more every day. I probably looked a little lost throughout the weekend, but I was lucky enough to have an experienced editor at my side to help me navigate the unfamiliar territory. (Thank you, Laura King!) My expectations were high going in with this being Canada’s largest show, and after hearing stories about how fun it can be from my colleagues. Three activity-filled days later, I can now report that those expectations were exceeded. It was the first time I messaged my loved ones with: “Having fun while working this weekend. How bizarre!” Without further ado, here are the top five things I – an inexperienced conference-goer – learned at the OAFC conference and trade show 2015: 1) Social media introduces you to people. I can’t tell you how many times I recognized faces from Twitter or Facebook and introduced myself with, “I know you!” And it was true – on a social-media level I did know them and we were already introduced. I thank my active presence on social media for making it easier to meet and greet during both the conference and trade show. You can bet I’ll be ramping that up over the next little while, and adding a ton of new acquaintances. 2) Networking can happen anywhere. Whether it’s a discussion during the morning coffee break or bumping into a conference-goer in the hotel lobby, networking is happening at all hours during a conference. And networking, we all know, is the quintessential conference experience. Meeting new people is the best way to learn from them. Granted, what I’m learning as an assistant editor of a magazine is slightly different than what chief officers are learning from each other! 3) Plans help, but it’s still easy to feel overwhelmed. This lesson is specific to the trade show since the OAFC did not overlap its sessions. The Ontario trade show is the largest in Canada and I don’t think I was quite prepared for its size. (I have, of course, been informed of the craziness that is FDIC trade show in Indianapolis.) I combated my feelings of awe by wandering about slowly to take it all in, then doing a second sweep of particular booths I wanted to revisit. I was lucky enough to meet a few patient vendors who gave me laymen’s explanations for their featured products. In the future, I’d feel more prepared if I knew what products I’d like to focus in on, while being open to anything that catches my eye. 4) Don’t forget your business cards. This one is pretty specific, but I thought I’d throw it in since I did, in fact, forget my business cards and keenly felt their absence. In fact, at one point, a new acquaintance took a photo of the lone card I had stashed in my wallet so that he had a copy for reference. You can imagine my embarrassment! Lesson learned. 5) And lastly, firefighters, especially leaders, are passionate about their jobs. I had an idea of this passion before I went into the conference after months of editing copy written by firefighters, and chatting with many on the phone. But it wasn’t until I sat in on Saturday’s learning sessions that I got a real sense of the extent of that passion. Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., Fire Chief and Fire Fighting in Canada columnist Vince MacKenzie’s passion for the volunteer fire service and leading with the positivity shined through during his presentation on leadership attitude. Kingsville, Ont., Fire Chief Bob Kissner was clearly amped up to share his knowledge of flow paths and SLICE-RS to the room of attendees. And David Griffin – a firefighter from Charleston, S.C., who presented on the Charleston 9 firefighters who lost their lives at the Sofa Super Store fire in 2007 – took the cake for passion, and volume. He spoke (yelled) on the need to embrace change in the fire service, drawing from the lessons learned by his department. Outside of the sessions, passion came through during the trade show Sunday as vendors eagerly shared their products and explained how they can help keep firefighters safe. And passionate faces beamed Saturday night as the organizers of the Ladders Up for the Foundation event proudly held up a $28,000 cheque for the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Thank you to all those passionate people who made my first conference and trade show experience a complete blast!
Aug. 18, 2014, Toronto – As I write this, my arms, legs and core are all a little sore, but it’s the kind of sore you wake up to the morning after a good workout. Now, I’m not much of a gym rat, but I could certainly get used to workouts at the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) in Toronto where I was taken through firefighter training on Wednesday.
April 24, 2014 – Editor’s note: Jasper, Alta., Fire Chief Greg Van Tighem finished his cycling journey along Highway 16 on April 14. The first part of his trip, which raised awareness of and funds for Multiple Sclerosis, took him from Masset, B.C., to Jasper, and the second part took him to Winnipeg. Now, after a whirlwind expedition, Greg is recapping his experience. You can see more on the website www.endms93.com and follow Chief Van Tighem on Twitter at @_gvt
May 11, 2016, Winnipeg - The Toronto Star published an editorial cartoon yesterday of a group of superheroes standing together in solidarity in front of a Fort McMurray firefighter – Superman, Batman, and other comic-book icons looking stoic and in appreciation of a humble firefighter who was covered in soot from protecting his community; the image has appeared all over social media.
Sept. 23, 2014, Winnipeg - As a firefighter-PCP working in a busy urban centre I often get the opportunity to talk to families about the medical care that their loved ones are getting. I’ve written about this before in columns and blogs but this issue came to light again when I had some medical issues recently with my 10-year-old terrier cross pooch.
Aug. 1, 2014, Winnipeg - I love baseball movies. I actually like baseball movies more than I like baseball. I’ve never played the game and don’t really understand all of its intricacies. But baseball movies, they’re fantastic; they have drama, action, even romance, and usually inspire us to change, grow, and challenge ourselves to be more than we ever dreamed we could be.
July 28, 2014, Winnipeg - My son has just informed me that he wants to fight fire for a living. I quickly countered that he should try to get into the senate, but he just starred at me and said, Huh?
Jan. 4, 2017, Slave Lake, Alta. - Run of the mill calls, or are they?
Monday, March 1, 2010 The game’s over. The Games are over. It’s Monday morning comin’ down from Sunday’s dramafest. Hockey fans across Canada rode the emotional roller coaster. In Vancouver, those who couldn’t afford a second mortgage to buy tickets from scalpers started lining up at the three major free viewing areas in downtown Vancouver at daybreak Sunday. Bars in the downtown core were jammed long before they could legally serve refreshments. As with the previous Canada-USA game, the streets were almost deserted when the puck was dropped.
Sunday, Feb. 28 So I was listening to the opera on Saturday afternoon (s’truth) on CBC Radio 2 (La Boheme) and Bill Richardson had Michael Farber on as his guest. As in, Michael Farber the hall of fame hockey writer for Sports Illustrated. Turns out he’s as big a fan of opera as he is of hockey. He had been hoping for a Canada-Russia final, with Canada as his pick. Check out his take on the quarter-final game here.
Saturday, Feb. 27 Not even Satan could stand between Team Canada and its date with Team America on Sunday afternoon. Miroslav Satan, that is. Right wing for Slovakia when not lacing his skates for the Boston Bruins. Scored the winning goal against Norway and almost had the tying goal against Canada. That’s why games are 60 minutes precisely and not one second longer.
Friday, Feb. 26 The Canadian ego received a much-needed boost with the women’s hockey gold medal victory over the Americans on Thursday. Walking past CBC Vancouver in the waning minutes of the third period, it was neat to watch CBC’s TV news anchors (they’re broadcasting from the sidewalk during the Olympics), watching the game televised by CTV though the window of the restaurant next door
Thursday, Feb. 25 Downtown Vancouver erupted for joy at the conclusion of the Russia-Canada hockey game. A wall of sound washed across English Bay and over a solitary photographer (me) setting up on Kits Point for some shots of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Vectorial Elevation light show. People yelling from apartment windows, banging pots, blowing horns and whistles, sounding car horns.
Wednesday, Feb. 24 The rain returned on Tuesday, along with the wind, making for a cold and miserable day for those who came outside in Vancouver. You’d think it was the middle of winter. Even at that, there were lots of people out and about on foot downtown. Not the stifling crowds of the sunny weekend, but still a lot of very enthusiastic people braving the elements. You can measure the buzz level by the length of the lineups at several key places. The Royal Canadian Mint has a pavilion the features the process behind the making of Olympic medals and allows viewers to handle the medals. Today’s lineup was down to about 90 minutes from Saturday and Sunday’s four hours.
Tuesday, Feb. 23 Yet another sunny day in Vancouver and Whistler Monday, though the rains are due to return today. So Team Canada lost and the sun rose the next morning. Maybe the fate of the nation is not on the line after all. It was interesting to watch the shock sink in when the U.S. scored in the opening minute. There was absolute silence on a street where seconds before it had been Mardi Gras without the nudity.
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