Fire Fighting in Canada

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Comment: May 2011

Tragedy is a harsh teacher. I was in Nova Scotia on the March Break when I got an e-mail alert saying two firefighters in Listowel, Ont., had died on duty while in a burning dollar store.

April 27, 2011
By Laura King


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Tragedy is a harsh teacher. I was in Nova Scotia on the March Break when I got an e-mail alert saying two firefighters in Listowel, Ont., had died on duty while in a burning dollar store.

I had three immediate thoughts.

First, did the two firefighters have children, or grandchildren, home from school on the break who might be nearby? In a week that’s all about families, this tragedy seemed even more profound.

Second, I had driven through Listowel last fall on the way back from speaking at a mutual-aid meeting. The coffee shop in the gas station was closed for the night but the owner boiled me some water and found a tea bag – typical of the good people of Listowel.

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And third, Billy Goldfeder’s presentation about dollar-store fires. Goldfeder, keeper of The Secret List of firefighter close calls, injuries and fatalities, detests dollar stores. Not because they sell cheap goods that burn quickly and give off toxic fumes, but because of the risks those types of retail operations pose to firefighters.

Goldfeder, in his Not Everyone Goes Home presentations about firefighter safety, incorporates the results of NIOSH reports on firefighter fatalities. A search of the NIOSH database shows several dollar-store fires in the last decade, including a 2003 fire in Memphis, Tenn., in which two 39-year-old firefighters died, and a 2009 fire in Chicago. Both fires started in the roofs of the buildings, as is believed to have been the case in Listowel.

Ed Hartin, a U.S.-based fire-service instructor and the operator of CFTB-US.com (Compartment Fire Behavior Training), is equally leery of dollar stores. He says there were 15 fires in dollar stores in the United States between 2006 and 2009.

“Dollar stores and similar types of commercial occupancies should be considered as a target hazard that presents a significant threat to firefighters,” Hartin says on the website.

“These types of stores are generally in an enclosed building . . . with high ceilings and a cockloft or other ceiling void space. In addition, this type of store contains a large fuel load comprised predominantly of synthetic fuel with a high heat of combustion (think high energy) and potential for extremely rapid fire development.”

A couple of weeks after the funerals for Ken Rae and Ray Walter of the North Perth Fire Department in Listowel, I was in Ilderton, Ont., to hear Battalion Chief John Salka of the FDNY talk about his experience on 9-11. With the Listowel line-of-duty deaths still achingly fresh, talk of the 342 FDNY firefighters who died in the 9-11 attacks hit home for the 250 firefighters who sat rapt while Salka told story after story of Sept. 11, 2001.

Messages from people like Goldfeder and Salka make firefighters’ jobs safer. As tragic as it is, so it will be with the lessons from Listowel. Whatever comes of the investigation, the deaths of Rae and Walter are not in vain.


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