Fire Fighting in Canada

The spice of life


Spontaneous Combustion
Fire chief Tim Beebe shares his interesting and entertaining perspective on recruitment in northern Ontario.

September 3, 2008 
By Tim Beebe

Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. He can be reached at

The recruit gripped the scaffold rail, knuckles
white, eyes darting anywhere but at the ground 10 feet below. His free hand
wrestled a tangle of rope, as an instructor tried to coax him through the final
twists and turns of the rescue knot. It was a tough go. Lowering a mannequin
isn’t rocket science but it does require two hands.

“Is he afraid of heights?” another firefighter asked.

“Him?” I replied, glancing up at my terrorized
recruit. “He doesn’t mind them as long as he can keep one foot on the ground.


The firefighter raised an
eyebrow. “Don’t you test your recruits before taking them on? Our guys have to
climb a ladder.”

“Our test is fairly simple,”
I replied. “We check for a radial pulse.”

The firefighter raised the
other eyebrow.

“Sometimes they fail,” I
continued, “but we always check beside the Adam’s apple too. If there’s no
carotid pulse though, they’re out. Even in Upsala we have to draw the line

I couldn’t blame him for
questioning. Fire departments in the ideal world eliminate all but the cream of
the crop. The problem is, Upsala is a long drive from the ideal world. We like
cream, but we’ll also take milk, yogurt and whey if we can get it.

At least having a wide net
gives a more colorful variety of personalities than just sticking to the cream
of the crop. And if variety is the spice of life, then Upsala is somewhere
between a Thai curry sauce and a Mexican jalapeno. Sure, everyone has their
quirks too, but with a small crew you get to know them.

“Sally is claustrophobic.”

“Joe doesn’t drive.”

“Pete faints at the sight of

Maybe it seems complicated,
but you just have to give Sally lots of space, keep Joe out of the driver’s
seat and assign Pete to set up the equipment. We can live with these quirks
because we also know that Sally is great at patient care, Joe is as strong as a
bull and Pete has amazing organizational skills.

Sometimes we do get low
achievers. Years ago we had a guy who liked to sit on top of the tanker and
close the lid when it was full. That was fine, except it was all he knew how to
do. But we have our share of smarts in this medley of minds as well.

Like the time our old Jordair
compressor was having difficulties. Actually, it wasn’t working at all. I tried
to read through the mazes of schematics and wiring diagrams but I don’t do
Hebrew and Greek very well. I made endless calls to compressor technicians who lived
too far away but they always ended with a dismal, “Well, I hope it all works
out for you . . .” Finally, one of my captains dropped by. He’s a trucker, a
common sense type of guy. He poked around with a large screwdriver, then popped
out a relay switch and smacked it hard on the frame of the compressor.

“Try it
now,” he said, shoving it back into its slot.

I flipped the switch and, voila! The compressor ran like a charm.
It reminded me of an old adage one of my bushwhacker friends uses a lot: “Don’t
force it, just use a bigger hammer.”

We learn to specialize, here
Spice Land.
The deputy chief’s wife wanted to help out, but didn’t want to fight fires, or
cut people out of cars.

“No problem,” I said (after
checking her wrist for a pulse). She used to be a school teacher and is highly
skilled with a pen. She takes minute by minute notes, written on the spot
rather than an hour after the dust settles. And I can actually read them.

It’s amazing to see the
mélange of skills out there. One department recruited a
retired Greyhound driver. Too old, someone might say, but he is a first-rate
driving instructor. I have a friend from another department who can pick
padlocks – strictly as a hobby mind you – but if he lived in Upsala, he’d be my
forcible entry guy. He’s also an expert marksman. He shoots flies with rubber
bands. I haven’t figured out a use for that skill yet but it’s bound to come in
handy some day.

So what do you do with the
guy that can’t stand heights? It’s easy. You assign him a job far away from a
ladder. With our reputation for saving basements, that shouldn’t be a problem .
. .

Imagination is more important than knowledge
Albert Einstein

Print this page


Stories continue below