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Sept. 21, 2011 – I’d love to change the world. Wouldn’t we all? Isn’t that why we put on the uniform or the suit and go to work?

September 21, 2011 
By Peter Sells

Sept. 21, 2011 – I’d love to change the world.

Wouldn’t we all? Isn’t that why we put on the uniform or the suit and go to work? I remember a few years ago, when change management was the latest business buzz topic and there was a very vocal school of thought that tried to shoot down the whole concept, essentially maintaining that change was inevitable and the idea that change could be managed was misguided. These people had missed the whole point, which is that the world continues to change and organizations can choose to either adapt in anticipation of (or response to) change, or remain stagnant and suffer the consequences. The question of whether the Canadian fire service has changed in the last 10 years is the central focus of this month’s issue of Fire Fighting in Canada. I would like to offer another set of before-and-after snapshots to that album.

In September 2001 I was eagerly anticipating my upcoming visit to FireCon in Thunder Bay, Ont. Having been there before, I knew to expect an eager and enthusiastic crowd of firefighters, officers and chiefs – primarily volunteers, giving up their weekend for some long, hard days of professional development. This grassroots conference shows all that is best in community service and personal dedication. My hat is off to the organizers, and to all the firefighters of northwestern Ontario, for the jewel they present each year. I couldn’t wait to get there and see it again. My main program presentation was on the laptop and ready to go.

Then came Sept. 11. The airspace was closed. With a little more than a week before FireCon was scheduled to start, it got knocked way down on the priority list. Living in central Mississauga, not directly on any flight path but still relatively close to a major airport, I remember exchanging a glance with my wife later that week as we were putting the kids in the car. We both noticed a plane in the air to the north, climbing away from Pearson International Airport. Relief, surprise, still a little shock, don’t say anything right now that will cause the kids to ask questions – all of that in one quick glance.

FireCon was still a go. I would be flying, less than two weeks after 9-11. I got a call from Ken Kurz, the deputy chief of Dryden Fire, who was organizing the classroom programming. Could I put something together in the few remaining days in order to fill a half-day workshop space? One of the scheduled instructors from the United States was no longer available. I assured Ken that I could do that, and got on the phone with my friend Pete Mata from Holland, Mich. Pete was a battalion chief at the time and hosted a weekly radio show on a community station. Since we were presenting on media relations for incident commanders, it was fairly straightforward to add a workshop on media interview skills. Pete and I would each bring our video equipment and have the participants role play as incident commanders and local print or TV reporters on the scene.

On the day of my flight, I could not believe how deserted Pearson was. It had that echo of an empty house in place of the constant din of announcements, luggage cartwheels and thousands of simultaneous conversations. Very weird, very eerie, but I was fairly certain that there wasn’t anyone huddled in a cave plotting to bring down a Dash-8 over Lake Huron.

The opening ceremony at FireCon was also a bit eerie, when it was noted that the number of firefighters in attendance was approximately the same as the number who had been murdered at the World Trade Center. That was the first for me of what was to be a year of fire-service events marked by open and unabashed tears.

Ten years after, and here I am just back from FireCon 2011 – still the same dedicated effort by the organizers and participants. I was an exhibitor this time, not an instructor, as my career has moved on into the private sector. We still have a fire problem. We still need to put ourselves in danger to save our fellow Canadians. We still have the threat of large-scale natural disasters, transportation emergencies, environmental calamities and terrorist attacks hanging over us.

I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.

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