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Fully Engaged: January 2013


December 28, 2012
By Ken Sheridan

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As I wrote this in late November, all thoughts were on the approaching Christmas season and fire departments were focused on holiday safety.

As I wrote this in late November, all thoughts were on the approaching Christmas season and fire departments were focused on holiday safety.

I remember the first smoke alarm my dad bought and installed. It was 1976. My dad was worried about a fire in our home, for no real reason other than the fact that it could happen. The smoke alarm was big, square and ugly, but I recall him installing it, testing it, changing the batteries and telling us all where to meet should we have to get out in case of a fire. When dad became a volunteer firefighter in our small town and saw first-hand the effects of fire, his fears were heightened.

One cold February night, sometime after 1 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of my dad running down the stairs of our two-storey home and opening the front door; he was greeted by our next-door neighbours, who had been fiercely knocking – all five family members clad only in their nightclothes. My dad knew exactly why they were there before they even said, “We have a fire in our house.” My siblings and I were about the same ages as the kids next door.

Dad yelled back upstairs for Mom to call the fire department – a seven-digit number – there was no 911 back then – and then he took off out the back door to go to the fire hall. I got up and went downstairs to see all the commotion. I recall putting on a coat and going around to the rear of the burning house, where I could see a fire in the kitchen that appeared to be on top of a chair near the rear door. I assumed that the neighbours had put their garbage there to be taken out later, perhaps in the morning. People used paper bags for garbage then.

A short time later, my dad and another volunteer firefighter arrived with the pumper truck. Then, more firefighters arrived. The fire was extinguished in minutes. The home suffered minor damage and it was repaired in a couple of weeks.

I remember the neighbours saying their small dog had woken them up, barking and causing quite a stir due to the fire and smoke. I recall thinking that the neighbours were lucky. My dad was concerned by the events and spoke to the neighbours about having a smoke alarm in their home. I’m not sure they ever did put one up; the alarms were rather expensive in the mid-1970s.

Many years passed and, as most kids do, I moved out; I was 20, and went off to college. I had the wonderful experience of being on a fire department for four years, two as a junior firefighter and two as a regular member. I knew it was in my blood.

My parents sold that house and also left that town of 800. I lost track of a lot of folks from there, but I will always remember that fire next door.

Perhaps it was events such as this one that helped to form who I am today and my attitude toward fire and protecting ourselves from it. My dad taught me many things, and one of them was the importance of smoke alarms, and of testing and maintaining them.

This year, I look forward to another wonderful Christmas and a few days off relaxing and spending time with the kids, although this was to be the first Christmas without having everybody home. My oldest is in Calgary working and building a life of his own, and my other kids are almost ready to take flight. I hope I’ve taught them well; I hope they remember to check their smoke alarms, and that they have an escape plan and practise it.

I love when a new year starts – it’s as if all the things from the year before have been wiped clean. I picture an artist before an untouched canvas with paints, brushes and, hopefully, inspiration. This is all just metaphorical nonsense really. But on the other hand, it’s not too far from the truth. 

At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2012, the fire-loss record for the next 12 months was blank. But somewhere in Canada, a fire burned or an alarm sounded. This isn’t a failure on our part as a fire service; fires start for a number of reasons.

I know well-trained crews responded with safety on their minds to intervene in the worst day of somebody’s life. Perhaps this year something will happen to lower the number of fires, such as a new program or the resurrection of an older program that is reworked so that it is effective today. (I know many of you have fire-prevention programs and are seeing the positive effects of them.)

If fire is a problem in your community – and if you have just one fire, then it is a problem – what strategies are you looking at to solve the problem or to better educate citizens? Now is your chance to become involved, kind of like a New Year’s resolution.

All this is to say that we in the fire service have the knowledge and have easy access to more information than in days past to analyze, intervene, design and implement a strategy that will make a difference in our communities. Who will do it? 

Sadly, I found out that just a few years ago, the neighbours (minus the children) who came to our house some 30 years ago, died in their home from fire. I don’t know much about the circumstances; I can only surmise.


Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire prevention officer and certified fire and life safety educator for the Province of Ontario. He is a graduate of the Dalhousie University fire administration program and has more than 21 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at ken.sheridan@norfolkcounty.ca and follow him on Twitter at @KennyBoy55


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