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Spontaneous Combustion: February 2012

The property owner glared at me like an angry bull.

February 14, 2012
By Tim Beebe

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The property owner glared at me like an angry bull. “Your trucks made ruts in my field,” he sputtered. “You shouldn’t have come. I was just burning brush.”

He had bulging neck veins and forearms the size of tree trunks.

“We were paged to a brush fire,” I replied, faking calmness. “The fire was unattended so we put it out.”

“You will fix the ruts,” he said, stabbing his finger at my face and sidling away. “I’m calling the police.”
Good luck, I thought as he stumped away. They called us.

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It’s awkward to run afoul of citizens’ expectations. Most of us joined the fire service because we wanted to help people, not make them mad. Public expectations, however, are a mishmash of conflicting interests that can’t always be reconciled. As Aesop famously said, “Please all, and you will please none.”

Firefighters enjoy a hard-earned reputation of being the guys and gals who make bad situations better. This was illustrated to me when I was waiting for friends outside a restaurant. An inebriated man emerged from a nearby bar and did a double take when he saw my uniform-like jacket. He approached cautiously.

“Are . . . are you a cop?” he asked nervously.

“Nope, a firefighter,” I replied.

“Good,” he said with obvious relief. “You’re the good guys. I thought you were a cop.”

The police share our mission to make bad situations better, but they are frequently viewed as confrontational enforcers because their role is to uphold the law. Some personality types thrive on conflict, but firefighters generally don’t. While we like being the good guys, we can’t ignore our role to uphold the portion of the law that pertains to us, which can cause people to view us as the bad guys.

The perception that we are hard-line law enforcers can work in our favour, but it can also negatively impact our mission. One time during a door-to-door smoke alarm campaign a homeowner answered my knock and was startled to see a uniformed fire officer. She retreated a few steps and stammered, “You aren’t going to inspect my house are you?” In spite of my assurances that I came in peace, she couldn’t get past the perception that I was there to find fault.

True to the fickleness of public attitude, I was invited into another home a short time later. The elderly homeowner wanted me to extract a cricket from her smoke alarm. A few minutes later, after installing a fresh battery and offering a friendly exhortation on smoke alarm maintenance, I departed as the good guy.

Of course, our mission is to keep our communities safe, not to be the good guys. This requires action that can damage our position on the Most Popular list. A number of years ago I was asked to inspect a new assembly occupancy so the owners could apply for a liquor licence. It would have been a routine inspection in a municipality, but it turned into a tangle of red tape in our unorganized community. There was no building permit, no proper plans, and no proof that it complied with the building code. After numerous letters, phone calls, and chase-your-tail discussions with clueless bureaucrats, we worked things out, but not before some tense moments between owner and fire department.

Fast forward a couple years, and a motel-style building with individual sleeping quarters started to appear on the landscape. I knew from the previous kerfuffle that the building would not be inspected for compliance with the building code and I couldn’t turn a blind eye. I decided to be a proactive good guy and pay the owner a visit.

“Hi there, I see you are building an apartment building.”

“It’s not an apartment building, it’s a motel.”

“Oh, I see. Um, I recommend you build it in compliance with the building code because . . . ”

“The building code doesn’t apply here. This is unorganized territory.”

“Actually, it does apply. It’s the Ontario Building Code . . . and we live in Ontario. As I was saying, I recommend that you . . . ”

“I recommend that you get off my property. You have no right to tell me how to build.”

“That’s correct, but once it’s built I will inspect it under the fire code. If you build it to the building code, it will comply with the fire code. If you don’t . . . ”

“I said, get off my property.”

I left, having fallen from favour in the eyes of a formerly friendly citizen.

The moral of the story is that ruts in the field will disappear in time, but unsupervised brush fires burn things down. Homeowners’ ruffled feelings will smooth over in time, but houses without smoke alarms are death traps. Angry residents will forgive us in time (or not), but buildings that don’t meet the code are a hazard to an unsuspecting public. Small community fire departments covet the goodwill of their people, but not in exchange for safety.

This balancing act between Superman heroism and Lex Luthor villainy comes with the territory of protecting people who aren’t protecting themselves. At the end of the day, cape or no cape, we have to do the job.


Tim Beebe was the fire chief in Upsala, Ont., for 15 years, and now manages the pre-service firefighter program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont. Contact him at tim.beebe@sympatico.ca and check out his blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com


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