A couple of weeks ago, the fire academy (not its full name) held its annual open house. I am now old enough to say I go to this event every year. As the academy is located on the outskirts of the Free City of Leslieville, I actually ride past it some 200 times a year, and I often stand by the sidelines watching and photographing their training runs, which are somewhat old hat now, actually. (I was also riding by when the sitting prime minister visited one day. Even a casual observer like me could tell they hadn’t really secured the area.)

Knowing that the show always closes well before the stated ending time, I got there nice and early and found I was pretty much the only single unaccompanied adult on the grounds; everybody else were parents and kids. And I was like: What are you waiting for, a singing telegram? It’s wall-to-wall firemens and you can crawl all over the equipment!

Here I am of course using the obscure Blaine and Antoine–ism firemens, pronounced with an ultra-long final vowel: “firemehhhnz.” And as I do every year, I asked the most senior guy I could find (it’s always guys) if X was still the only openly gay fireman on the force. This guy had never heard of him, but figured they had the same proportion of homosexualists as any other sphere of society. Yeah, and they’re all lesbians! I said. In retrospect, I’m not sure that X is still a fireman, and he certainly has been out of the public eye recently (not-riding-atop-a-fire-engine-in-the-Pride-parade kind of thing), so I will act as though he’s a civilian now and redact his name. But, you know, if you need a tall blond fireman in perfect shape, he’s your man. Or his husband’s.

I made sure to be given a tour of every single apparatus available, except the old yellow (hence North York) pumper they use for training. I took pictures. I toured the hazmat truck (fascinating, though everything was in hermetically sealed bags), a new $1.2 million ærial truck and a slightly less new one, and a few engines and ladder trucks.

There was exactly one wymmynz present. And you’re the only female firefighter here today, I told her as she sat in the ærial platform. Well, yes, she said. A colony only ever has one queen.

Most of the firemens were somewhat dishevelled and not-exactly-low-bodyfat guys in middle age. Except this fella. Funny, you don’t look Irish, I told him. No, I am definitely not Irish, he said.

Black fireman inside cab of large fire apparatus, with helmet nearby

He totally knew what was up, by the way.

We had the Diversity Discussion. All the recently-hired firefighters are from the class of ’03, he said. There were two lists – white males on one and everybody else on the other. They alternated hires from either list, but eventually they ran out of “diverse” candidates, so a lot of the newest hires have been white males. His house has several wymmynz. He kind of stayed away from talking about how many other black guys there were, presumably because that number approaches zero. (A Chinese dude on the property that day looked about 28 and was wearing glasses. I know you can be Chinese, sure, but can you wear glasses and still be a fireman?)

Now: What is the absolute best feature of the ærial truck we were sitting in? The horn is controlled by a pair of chains overhead, which you just grab onto and yank. Oldschool.

Kooky fun facts

  • They’ve got winter wetsuits that leave you uncomfortably hot and little inflatable dinghies to rescue you if you fall into the lake. These vessels have something strange about them that wasn’t adequately explained – the very centre is soft for some reason, not reinforced, if memory serves.
  • If you fall down a “manhole,” they can set up a tripod and rappel down to pull you out.
  • If you’re crushed under a car, they can crib you out by placing rubber-like blocks under the vehicle and jacking it up. Or, if you’re scrunched under a streetcar, they have inflatable airbags that can lift the whole streetcar up.
  • The outriggers on the ærial trucks are completely remote-controlled, except for the initial placement of steel plates on the ground. (I was specifically told not to touch the buttons.)
    • They can push all four out at once, but they don’t; they extend outriggers on one side at a time to make sure they don’t hit anyone who got in the way while their backs were turned.
    • On a narrow street, they’ll extend one side fully and the other side partially, articulating the overhead platform (not a “cherrypicker”) only on the fully-extended side.
    • They raise the entire 80,000-pound vehicle off the ground in order to pass that force through the outriggers and improve stability.
    • The platforms seem unworkably slow.
  • They’ve got redundant systems to indicate when a firefighter is unconscious or immobile. At the first level, the radio attached to the front of the shoulder emits an alarm if it isn’t moved within about two minutes. Does this mean when you’re just standing there talking about something, you subconsciously move around to keep resetting the timer? Yup. And they have other alarms on other radios.
    • At medium-sized fires, second and later alarms can have the sole function to back up, protect, and pull out firefighters who arrived on previous alarms.
  • The hazmat truck has a bewildering range of filters and protective suits, some of which are good for use only for 28-day periods. (Presumably the activated charcoal or equivalent decays over time.)
    • There’s a computer onboard they can use to check the requirements for whatever “product” (a term the guy kept using) has been released. When the computer crashes – as it often does, given that it’s IE6 on Windows – they check the printed books in the locked but still fragile-looking overhead compartment.
    • There are ten different kinds of detectors, including handheld and seriously sensitive Geiger counters.
  • If you need to tell them apart, firemens’ helmets are black, captains’ are red, and the chief’s is white.
  • Now, why do you see so many firetrucks (“apparatus” – I never get extra credit for knowing that term) out on what are obviously not fire calls? Because it’s a medical call, and the principle is that a fire hall is no more than three minutes’ drive away from anywhere in its catchment area, and there are a lot more firehalls than ambulance depots. Whoever gets there first stabilizes the patient, at least at the level of keeping you breathing and zapping your heart back into motion. Isn’t that a waste of resources? No, because they’re on duty anyway, and the dispatchers always backfill other apparatuses into the void left by a medical call.
  • And if, after all that, you insist on being a goner, they can carry you out in a Stokes basket.

I later saw a really ill-groomed heavy-metal type, almost straight out of Central Casting with his unkempt shoulder-length hair and layered wrinkled shirts and jean jacket, talking to what was obviously a recruiter. I assume he was merely along for the ride with his friend, a shaven-headed, impossibly solid bodybuilder in the strangest footwear of the year, black platform combat boots. Somebody tell this guy that brute strength doesn’t really help in firefighting (you do not toss a victim over your shoulder and run down the stairs), and that he’s probably going to be so inflexible he wouldn’t be able to rappel down the manhole. There’s a reason girls can do the job, you know. Anyway, you’re there to save lives, not audition for the calendar.

Incidentally, I had the Seatbelt-Nazi Discussion many, many times, as I do every year. Ostensibly you’re all supposed to be restrained while driving around at top speed, whipping around corners without even stopping, but I watch you guys and I know you aren’t. And all it’s gonna take is one fatality and…. From stem to stern the response was no, we always wear our seatbelts. (This is a lie, of course.) That’s why they’re orange – so you can tell whether we’re wearing them from outside.

But anyway, I was told, some guys get nauseous riding backwards and they have to stand up and face forward. Not so tough after all, youse guys?

When everyone indeed packed up early, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the most prominent pedestrian for a hundred metres. The various firemens, conscientiously orange-seatbelted into place, gave me a bitchy little wave. Yeah, love you guys, too. Go, Irish.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.11.16 17:00. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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