– Mark E. Smith

I almost didn’t go to the fire academy’s open house, as I do every year. One reason is because I was planning on hosting a group event for the day, but never got my act together. (My group events always turn out so well anyway, do they not? Nonetheless, come back next year for Nerds on Firetrucks™.) Plus I’ve been on every apparatus and I almost know the keyless ignition sequence for one of them. (Just the sort of minutiæ nerds go for. See you in ’010.) What else did I have to learn?

I managed to think of something and showed up. I walked around to the parking lot and beelined toward the obvious target. “A dying breed,” I said to one lad: “A red-haired fireman.” He kind of smiled.

I told him I’d done everything except tour the tower, a seven-storey concrete monolith that simulates an apartment building, among many other functions. (They never burn it; they have a burn house 30 feet away for that purpose. It’s actually used for smoke and flashover testing, not really fighting “fire.”)

One minute later and I was touring the place from the inside. Just me and the last ginger fireman standing.

Red-haired fella in blue Toronto Fire T-shirt leans on a concrete wall

We went through the whole place. Room after room contains obstacles and pinchpoints and little confined spaces you have to get through while wearing full turnout coat and breathing apparatus. Many more rooms sit empty, like prison cells. They can run you up and down the stairs and simulate various kinds of evacuations using heavy mannequins.

I asked a million questions. There is no such thing as too much information when it comes to firefighting. I couldn’t ever do the job and really I don’t want to, but I have to know everything.

My host, Jason, has been on the force eight years. Previously he held down a crushingly dull day job that was eating him up inside. Now he’s doing something rangy and physical – just the sort of thing that suits the Fire Venturers cadets I later talked to. (One of them volunteered the following: “I don’t like writing.” He’s in the right place.)

At ground level, we shook hands goodbye and back Jason went to the cluster of firemen who’d been standing around waiting for something to do. “Aww, back with your buddy?” one of them loudly said. I pretended not to notice, but it bothered me, as everything does. I’d been happy as a clam getting an informative tour of a fire-training facility from a self-effacing redhead fireman. It’s the happiest I’ve been in weeks.

I’ve read every book of firefighter autobiography in the library, I go to every open house, I watch the Combat Challenge on TV and I cover it in person, I watch cadets’ morning training sessions all year. I have every reason to be there. It also gives me precious and beloved time in an all-male environment, which I enjoy as much as they do, for reasons I assure you are only marginally different. Please don’t pick on your fans, fellas.

I thought things couldn’t get better, but they did. I closed my visit with a good half-hour chat with another red-haired firefighter. (This time it was a she.) We talked about just what’s involved in recruiting gays and disabled people. If you feel really uncomfortable and bored at Woody’s, if you like to take up space, if you can drive and swim, if you know CPR, if you’re strong as an ox with good VO₂ max, if you want to do something where you’re actually doing something, then, man, have I got a job for you. And if you want, I’ll be your fan.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.10.05 14:23. 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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