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Spontaneous Combustion: July 2011

My pager hissed and crackled, then went silent. That was helpful, I thought, as I pulled on my boots and headed for the fire hall.

July 7, 2011 
By Tim Beebe

My pager hissed and crackled, then went silent. That was helpful, I thought, as I pulled on my boots and headed for the fire hall.

Those innocent words – vehicle in the ditch – can mean anything. Sometimes they indicate a rollover. Occasionally they portend a collision with an immovable object. One time, they were code for a head-on crash between two tractor-trailers. Frequently, however, “vehicle in the ditch” simply means that someone slid off the road into the nice, cushy snow bank. There’s no way to know what to expect when the pagers go off and we hear those words.

Out here in the boondocks, we’re accustomed to receiving sketchy details. The convenience of cellular technology, coupled with the helpful nature of most Canadians, creates an unexpected problem. The Good Samaritans aren’t always good enough to stop and get the facts. They dial 911, pass along their few microns of information, and then congratulate themselves on a civic duty well done as they zoom into the sunset. However, Raith, Ont., is a 100-kilometre round trip from where we are in Upsala, Ont. That’s a long way to send a pumper and a rescue just to find out that the people in the ditch are mad because you didn’t bring a tow truck. But when the call comes, we don’t have the luxury of dissecting the credibility of the caller. We have to go.

I’ve jokingly talked of writing a tutorial on the three easy steps to dialing 911: find out what happened, dial the numbers, and pass along the rele-vant information. Most people have a good grasp on dialing the numbers. It’s the scanty information that muddies what should be a clear communication stream, like the time we were paged to a head-on collision and a fire involving a pick-up truck and a transport truck. Past experiences lent a little urgency to the call, until we were abruptly cancelled halfway there.


“Cancelled?” I asked in disbelief.

“Ambulance is on scene. They said you aren’t needed,” the dispatcher replied.

“But how . . . ?”

“They just said you aren’t needed . . . if you really want to go, it’s up to you.”

We have better things to do than go where we aren’t needed, so we turned around. Later, the paramedics told me that a transport had clipped the front bumper of a pick-up truck parked on the side of the highway (the head-on part). The impact rattled the battery, throwing a shower of sparks into the engine compartment (the fire part). It was a near disaster, and a near miss – both common occurrences on the Trans-Canada Raceway – but a few more details would have been helpful.

Sometimes our Good Samaritans are clueless about their location, like the time we were paged to a collision 10 kilometres east of town. We paraded our vehicles through Upsala, got a few minutes down the road, and received an update that the call was actually west of town. We turned around and paraded back through Upsala, headed west.We received another page shortly after: “Actually guys, it was east of town after all.” At this point, the dispatchers were likely just as bewildered as we were. They can only relay the information they are given. I imagine there are days when the call centre sounds like this:

“Fire dispatch, what is your emergency?”

“Um, yeah, I saw a vehicle stuck in a snow bank. I think it crashed.”

“What is the location?”

“Hang on . . . (muffled) Edith, where the heck are we? . . . Yeah, we’re east of Upsala.”

“Is anyone trapped or hurt?”

“How am I supposed to know? I was doing 90 and talking on my cellphone when I drove by.”

“Do you have any other information?”

“Yeah, it was a blue 2006 Chevy Suburban 4×4 with a roof rack, tinted windows, summer tires, aluminum rims, a trailer hitch, a scratch on the right rear fender . . .”

“Ooookay, anything else about the crash?”

“Yeah, it was west of Upsala.”

“But you said it was east. . .”

“Did I? I meant east of English River. We’re west of Upsala . . . or maybe it’s Raith . . . (muffled) What’s that, Edith? Oh, my wife says we’re somewhere between Sault Ste. Marie and Winnipeg. Can I hang up now?”

On rare occasions, we have the option of refusing to respond. We declined a forest-fire call once because it was 50 kilometres away and there was a foot of snow on the ground. I suggested that the dispatcher send the police, who are paid to go on wild goose chases. The next day, an officer told me that a traveller with a broken-down vehicle had built a small campfire in the bush to keep warm. A passerby saw the flames and used his trusty cellphone to call in the “forest fire.”

I understand that the average person doesn’t feel qualified to decide when a person does or does not need help. No one wants to ask, “Excuse me sir, is your left foot normally turned around backwards?” or “Sorry to bother you ma’am, but are flames supposed to be shooting out from under the hood of your car?” It should be possible, however, to collect a few relevant details without asking a brainless question or scorching one’s eyebrows.

So here’s what I would say to the Good Samaritans. If you think someone needs help, go ahead and whip out your cellphones faster than Wyatt Earp draws his six-gun. In spite of my grumbling about itchy 911 fingers, I admit that modern technology does facilitate a speedy response, especially out here in the boondocks. The Good Samaritans would be even better though, if they would just stop and take an old-fashioned look first.

Maybe I should write that 911 tutorial.

Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at and check out his blog at

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