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Spontaneous Combustion: October 2009

The night sky glowed red on the horizon as the trucks rolled from the hall, a sure sign that the fire was well advanced. If the farmer who lived in the old homestead hadn’t escaped, it would be game over.

September 15, 2009 
By Tim Beebe

The night sky glowed red on the horizon as the trucks rolled from the hall, a sure sign that the fire was well advanced. If the farmer who lived in the old homestead hadn’t escaped, it would be game over.

The pumper headlights illuminated a lone figure standing at the dark end of the driveway as we approached. “I got out by the skin of my teeth,” he said. “The smoke alarm woke me up.” Saved by the fourth line of defence.

Fourth line? Ontario fire departments are well educated in the three lines of defence, as taught by the Office of the Fire Marshal. In case you aren’t familiar with this doctrine, let me elaborate.

Education is the first line. It assumes that people care enough to change their behaviour once we enlighten them. But sometimes they don’t care enough and we have to make ’em do it. That’s where enforcement, the second line of defence, comes in. The last line is emergency response, which kicks in when lines one and two fail.


Without detracting from the three Es, I’d like to suggest that there is a fourth line of defence: technology – gadgets like smoke alarms and seatbelts that override our ignorance, carelessness or stupidity, or that take up the slack when things go unexpectedly south. This isn’t a new concept but perhaps a different viewpoint on an old one.

I’m a fan of the first E. If education were a religion, I would be a priest. I love imparting information to receptive minds and open hearts. But minds and hearts aren’t always receptive and open, and sometimes people just don’t get it. That brings to mind the story that Tim Vanderbrink of Edmonton tells about the crew that found a young fellow rolling around in his bedroom during a house fire. “The firefighters taught me to stop, drop and roll,” he explained. A case of good information, bad application.

Enforcement definitely has its place as well. I know a fire chief who capitalizes on Ontario’s smoke alarm law. When his crew finds an unprotected home, they offer the occupants a choice: a $10 smoke alarm or a $200 fine – a great incentive to toe the line. The only problem is that there’s always the bonehead who pulls the battery as soon as we leave, just because.

Emergency response is the most publicized of the three Es. The media, in particular, love this one, and they don’t care if our response is brilliant or blundering. Either way, the story sells newspapers. When the third line of defence fails though, things get ugly. No one likes it when the coroner joins the team.

In Ontario, about 100 people die each year from fire. About 800 die in vehicle crashes. We’ve made great advances in the past 30 or so years, thanks to the four lines of defence. Passionate educators, diligent enforcers and smarter technology have all played their parts. Emergency responders are better trained and better equipped. But we are still handicapped by human nature in this marathon march to a safer world.

Smoke alarms are a good example. Since the advent of this affordable, user-friendly technology, the fire service has laboured to educate, legislate and enforce its use. But how many times have we  found them disabled, disconnected or just plain ignored?

Seatbelts, airbags and vehicle engineering have saved countless lives. Those technologies, combined with vigorous education and enforcement, have slashed the highway death toll in Ontario by almost half since 1980. But people still die on our roads at a rate that would hijack international news headlines if it were the result of swine flu or SARS.

Last year, the Ontario Building Code was amended to require the installation of sprinklers in new residential construction over three storeys, a great step in the right direction. But how many times has legislation been killed that would require sprinklers in all new residential construction, despite statistics from progressive cities like Vancouver where there hasn’t been a single fire fatality in a sprinklered home since 1992 when the city mandated their use in all new houses.

Permit me to allow my fertile imagination to run wild for a few minutes. Innovators like Edison and Bell didn’t make their marks in history by being ordinary. They were eccentric, to put it nicely. If it weren’t for crackpots, we’d still depend on candles and carrier pigeons. George Bernard Shaw was serious when he said that all progress depends on the unreasonable man. I’m not an inventor, but perhaps a few nutty ramblings might spark an inspiration in some unconventional mind. Allow me to present my safety technology wish list. Keep in mind that I’m only half kidding.

Smoke alarms with built-in computer chips that debit $200 from the owner’s account when the alarm is disabled.

Neon signs on vehicles that flash Idiot in Motion when any occupant rides without a seatbelt.
Automatic sprinklers that activate on legislators every time they kill a bill or regulation that would improve firefighter safety.

A currency converter that exchanges warm, whimsical words into cold, convenient cash for struggling fire departments (sorry, off topic, but I couldn’t resist).

Our homesteader friend survived because he took a fire-safety message to heart and maintained his smoke alarms. He almost died because his 70-year-old house was a tinder box waiting for a match. Old houses burn down every day and new ones are built to replace them. It’s within our grasp to build them safer. Imagine a future in which we hurdle past the politics and personal opinions that nix possibilities like sprinklers in every new home. The three Es have made the world a safer place. Perhaps we could direct more funding toward technologies to make the future even safer. We have no shortage of brilliant, innovative people. We can create that future. The question is, will we? 

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

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