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Flashpoint: May 2011

In August 1995, Bill Manning, the editor of Fire Engineering magazine in the United States, took a big risk.

April 28, 2011
By Peter Sells

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In August 1995, Bill Manning, the editor of Fire Engineering magazine in the United States, took a big risk. The magazine’s cover traditionally featured a fire-scene photo, with a brief description of the photo on the table of contents page. Manning would regularly receive comments from readers criticizing the photos, usually pointing out safety violations. The catch-22 for Manning was that the photos had to be of real, uncontrolled, live-fire scenes, yet the magazine had a philosophy of and responsibility for fire-scene safety. To make the point that any real fire scene involves inherently chaotic elements and that complete safety is an ideal that can be approached but never achieved, Manning went out on an editorial limb. The issue featured a completely white cover with the Fire Engineering logo in subdued grey across the top, described as “the perfectly safe fire scene.”  The cover immediately brought to mind the Beatles eponymously titled 1968 album, which is better known as The White Album.

We all have a responsibility for fire-scene safety, and we all know that we have it. Legislation across Canada places responsibility on the worker, the supervisor and the employer for compliance with health and safety regulations. I’m not going to quibble over whether volunteer/paid-on-call/part-time firefighters are employees in this context. We all know that we are accountable for the proper wearing and use of the personal protective equipment supplied by our fire departments, yet we continue to hear of and see basic safety violations regularly.

While reading reports of the tragic fire in Listowel, Ont., in March, I came across a photo on the Toronto Star’s website that was taken in the aftermath of the roof collapse that claimed the lives of two firefighters. One firefighter is shown handling a hose and another is about to enter the building. Neither firefighter is wearing gloves. If you think I am being nitpicky here, or that half of what I say in this column is meaningless, consider that I say it just to reach you with a message – often, a message of prudence. If you think that this scene is of small-town volunteer firefighters and that it does not represent the common safety practices of the Canadian fire service, consider that Canada’s largest fire service was recently cited for exactly this violation by its provincial Ministry of Labour after a firefighter received serious burns to his hands. Not to minimize that injury, but there are worse things than blisters on your fingers, fatal things that can be easily prevented by simply wearing your personal protective equipment.

It doesn’t matter whether the firefighter is a volunteer who had to leave his barrow in the marketplace, or a career firefighter who was just in the kitchen with the rest of the crew, clutching their forks and knives to eat their bacon and eggs on Sunday morning. It doesn’t matter if the firefighter just flew in from Miami Beach and didn’t get to bed last night. It doesn’t matter if the local fair was at the community centre attached to the fire hall, and just a few hours ago the firefighter was in the next room at the hoedown. The reality is that firefighters will be called to duty when they haven’t slept a wink and their minds are on the blink. The reality is that there is someone at home listening for your footsteps coming up the drive . . .  You know the rest of the lyrics – you don’t want me to write them out for you, do you?

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It is not important that there are people like me who are critical of poor safety behaviours on the fire ground. What is important is that it is your job, your officer’s job and your chief’s job to correct these behaviours. If you are under the mistaken impression that no one will be watching you perform your job as you do it in the road, think again. However big you think you are, you’ll get yours yet. You might not feel it now, but when the pain cuts through you’re gonna know – and how. I make no apologies for any of the transgressions that I bring to light in this column. In 19 years as a training officer and chief training officer, my job often felt like fixing a hole in the ocean. If anyone’s got a real solution to the constant problem of unnecessary fire-ground injuries, well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan. I think that what is making me crazy is that we all are in love with our jobs but we’re lazy. The training is there, the regulations are there and the personal protective equipment is there. Come on lets make it easy; help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.

We will be better; we will be better just as soon as we are able. We may wait a lonely lifetime, but Bill Manning’s vision of the perfectly safe fire scene will have its moment to arise. With every mistake we must surely be learning. 


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.


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