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Oct. 22, 2012, Winnipeg – The other day, as I was shuffling my kids back and forth from hockey, driving down Pembina Highway, which is one of the main drags in south Winnipeg, I saw a man about my age walking down the sidewalk whom I frequently have seen in the neighbourhood the last few years.

October 22, 2012
By Jay Shaw

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At the stop light, I got a closer look and something clicked. He dresses differently we’ll say to be kind, and he seemed to be in his own world. You’ve seen him, haven’t you? This man just seems to not fit; he doesn’t look homeless, rather, a lost soul is a better description, I believe. The interesting thing is that I believe this person is a schoolmate I used to hang out with in Grade 7. I’m almost positive I know who he is, as we both grew up in a lower-income neighborhood several kilometres from where we both apparently live today. I remember him as a vibrant, outgoing kid, who was popular and athletic, and it is very surprising to see him in this manner.

How is it that my old friend seems lost and I have this amazing life? I mean sure, more cash would be nice, and a nicer car would be a bonus but I’m doing OK and I have the most amazing wife and three kids who keep me on my toes; and by no means am I suggesting that life is not full if you do not have what I have, but it seems apparent to me (mainly from my experience with the fire department in dealing with homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse) that this chap is missing something in his life. I don’t know his story, and I probably will never turn my car around, pull up to him and say, hey its me, from 27 years ago. However, I do think that it is not that far of stretch, for me anyway, to claim that I might have been very lost if I had not landed the dream job.

Life has a funny way of working out. Depending on your faith, beliefs, and how you perceive the world, you may have a theory about why you are where you are in your life; luck, hard work, a chance meeting, maybe all of the above have something to do with it. Today, I feel so privileged to be a firefighter and am very lucky to be where I am, with such a great job; but for some reason I could not get my old buddy out of my head last night. I wanted to find him and ask him how he has been, and what he has been up to, hoping that there is some explanation for my perception of his plight. What if I never got the job? What would my life look like now? Do you not ever wonder where and what you would be doing if you did not have turn-outs and a helmet?

I often wonder about what other jobs I would be able to do had I not become a firefighter. I am a crappy carpenter and even though this was my fathers trade, I am positive I could not cut it in that industry. My definition of a square and true deck, fence, or wall, seems to miss the mark a bit. A desk job is out of the question, as I can’t see myself doing the same things over and over all the time. I have a friend who is a graphics guy and sits in front of screen all day; I’m not sure how many minutes I would survive this type of work either. I know a ton of lawyers, and while the income and travel seems interesting, the hours and family life don’t add up. I have no close friends who are doctors; I can see myself doing this job, but the calculus and bio-chemistry courses would have stopped me in my tracks, something about a 4.5 GPA.

Like many of you I have had a few careers in my past. I used to work in a hospital as an orthopedic technologist casting and splinting broken bones. One of our duties was to to remove the bones and tissue (eyes, pelvis, femur, lower leg, select tendons and skin) from human organ donors and prep them for transplant, so I’ve done my fair share of crap jobs.

What the job has given to me, is far greater than what I have given it. I have been saved, almost as if I were in the animated Christmas show from the island of misfit toys. And I have seen this job save many of you as well. We all have our demons; sometimes they get the best of us, but the job has pulled its fair share from the depths of despair. The fire service seems to be such a perfect fit, and yet if I did not have this as a career, I wonder if I too, would be walking the streets looking for something that makes sense of it all. Maybe I would have turned out all right, or maybe not. Maybe my friend is happy, maybe I’m reading this all wrong, but I wonder this: What kind of firefighter would he have been, and would the job have saved him as it has for so many of us? I know I’m going to have to turn my car around next time, but I’m afraid of what I’m going to find out.


Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is
completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at
Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a
research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at
jjrg@mymts.net.


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