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Guest column: May 2011


April 28, 2011
By Trent Elyea

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Most of us know what it’s like to drive the same route every day, or drive a long distance, and all of a sudden realize we have arrived at our destination but aren’t sure how we got there. Life is like that – we drive on autopilot. Sometimes the drives are short; sometimes the drives are long.

Most of us know what it’s like to drive the same route every day, or drive a long distance, and all of a sudden realize we have arrived at our destination but aren’t sure how we got there. Life is like that – we drive on autopilot. Sometimes the drives are short; sometimes the drives are long.

But every now and again, something rattles us out of the trance. I think we were all recently rattled out of life’s day-to-day trance as we watched in horror while the events unfolded at a fire in a dollar store in Listowel, Ont., and two volunteer firefighters lost their lives. Those of us who have been at this firefighting game for a long time know there will be ramifications from these line-of-duty deaths – perhaps new SOPs or guidelines, perhaps a hard look at the role firefighters play in their communities. Each and every one of us lost a small piece of ourselves again that day, as we have so many times before – we hurt and our lives were changed because of an incident that will affect us in so many ways.

As I get older I look at things differently. I have been a firefighter for 28 years and have seen a multitude of changes. When I started, we wore petch coats and rode on the back of the truck to a call. We had the old positive/demand breathing apparatus that we wore only when we had to. The fire service was a militarized organization with rank and structure and everyone did what they were told: we cleaned the stations and we cleaned the trucks – they were a reflection of who we were. When the chief or deputy came into the station, people stood up. Fire fighting was not just a job; it was a lifestyle.

For some reason, when I was waiting to march in Listowel on the day of the funeral for firefighters Ken Rae and Ray Walter, all of those things entered my mind – possibly because I’ve seen myriad changes and I was disheartened with what I thought was happening in the fire service today. We seem to have lost that drive and passion that used to encompass the fire service. As I stood there in Listowel, I looked back at a sea of black hats that stretched as far as I could see; I never did see the end of the line. Suddenly, all of what I thought, was not: there were thousands of firefighters, young and old and of all ranks, and any sense of entitlement that I thought was permeating the fire service disappeared; rather there was simply an astounding number of professionals paying their respects to comrades who lost their lives serving their community. It was truly a magnificent sight.

The mind is like a filing cabinet. We all have things filed away, and sometimes, certain emotions are triggered by factors such as sounds or smells. In our occupation, we all have memories stored in those filing cabinets. When something triggers a memory, it pops out and we deal with it all over again. You might as well hand me a box of Kleenex every time I hear bagpipes play Amazing Grace. For some reason, the haunting sound of a lone bagpipe brings out deep emotion. I think it is because of what it stands for in our business; we know the significance of the pipes. In Listowel on that March afternoon, I stood across from a Mountie in full dress, who locked eyes with me as the bagpipes started. Our eyes stayed locked as the pallbearers walked past with the first casket, followed by the family. I held my emotional ground, but I could see the Mountie wavering. When the pipes started for the second casket and family, the Mountie won: eyes locked, two complete strangers had tears running down their faces while the casket of a fallen brother went past. I will likely never see that Mountie again, but for that moment, we shared the pain of a loss of a family member, someone we had never met but for whom we had heavy hearts.

We had never known the families and had never had the pleasure of seeing them all together, yet we hurt. That is what we are supposed to do. That is who we are . . .

We are one of the thousands who marched or stood in the cold.

We are one of the thousands who bowed our heads.

We are one of the thousands who saluted the hearses carrying the caskets.

We are one of a brotherhood that lost a little piece of itself that day.

That is what we do.


Trent Elyea is the fire chief in Colllingwood, Ont. He started as a volunteer firefighter in Collingwood, Ont.,  in 1982, moved to Clarington, Ont., where he was promoted to captain, then became deputy chief, and chief, in Orillia, Ont., before moving back to Collingwood. He is a certified fire and explosive investigator, a Level 3 certified municipal manage, fire service executive, and the community emergency management co-ordinator.


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