Last night I joined about 20 fellow Sisters in Crime members at Toronto Fire Station 326 to find out how Toronto firefighters do the wonderful job they do. Several Sisters, myself included, wanted to know more about firefighting and fire station settings because, sooner or later, a fire is bound to flare up in a mystery or a thriller we’re writing.
Author Janet Bolin came into the city from her home near Port Burwell, Ont., to brush up on background for Willow Vanderling, the protagonist of Bolin’s Threadville mystery series. Willow occasionally ventures out of her machine embroidery shop to join fellow volunteer firefighters in firefighting and rescue missions.
Captain John Kenny was the ideal person to show us around the station. When he isn’t running into burning buildings, Kenny writes thrillers. His first, The Spark, was released last year and features a young firefighter, Donny Robertson, who refuses to believe that the blaze that killed his captain wasn’t just a terrible accident. Searching for the truth proves to be the most dangerous ride Donny will ever be on.
Kenny, along with acting captain John Channing, first class firefighter Curtis Tistechok and junior firefighter Phil DeWolf, began the tour by showing us how to operate a 30-mm-diameter firefighting hose. We had to brace ourselves, one foot forward, one foot back, to fight the kickback pressure. Not easy! At the end of the demonstration, we understood why a minimum of two firefighters are needed to man the 65-mm hoses at a fire.
“One of the first things recruits have to get used to is the intense heat of a blaze,” Kenny said. “That’s the reason for the hose’s fog spray pattern. It literally sucks the heat out of a fire by displacing the oxygen.”
Toronto firefighters don’t just respond to fires; they are also the first responders (followed by municipal police and paramedics) to medical emergencies in the city. Their skills include extricating accident victims from vehicles. Several old cars, donated by wrecking companies, are in the station yard for practising removing a vehicle, piece by piece, from around a victim. “We don’t remove a person from a vehicle,” Kenny said, “we remove parts of the vehicle from around the person.” Extrication tools include spreaders to pry open vehicle doors and giant scissors than can open up a car like a can of sardines.
The next stop was inspecting a fire truck—a rescue pumper. After showing us the gauge panels on the side of the pumper that control water pressure and volume, Kenny said that, despite the technology, firefighting has changed very little over the past few hundred years. “Basically, it’s about getting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
The pumper’s many compartments neatly house a plethora of equipment: a 12-foot pike pole for hauling down ceilings, a roof ladder with hooks that go over the peak of a roof, a telescopic pole to rescue people who fall into Lake Ontario, forcible entry tools such as crowbars and axes, vehicle extrication tools and ventilating equipment.
A smoke ejector is an essential because “most people who die in fires die of smoke,” Kenny said.
The pumper also holds standard tools such as a rotary saw, a chain saw, hammers and chisels, a power generator and floodlights, first aid equipment and drinking water. There are also stuffed animals, colouring books and crayons to comfort distraught children.
Four firefighters go out on the truck. “My job as captain is to look at the whole scene and minimize risk,” Kenny said. “We will risk everything to save a person, but we won’t risk a life to save property.”
Toronto Fire Services employs women firefighters. Like their male counterparts, women applicants must pass a written test, an interview and a physical assessment. If accepted, they undergo three months’ of training at the Toronto Fire Academy located right behind Station 326. Female recruits are generally what Kenny calls “big, tough women. I weigh close to 300 pounds with all my gear on, so they need to be able to carry me out of a burning building.”
Inside the station, we toured staff sleeping and eating quarters, and its gymnasium. A large part of the station is taken up by a six-story-high shell of a building where firefighters can practise high-angle rescues and aerial truck manoeuvres.
Fighting fires is dangerous work. Firefighters can die while on duty of heart attacks, asphyxia and burns. And due to their exposure to toxic substances, they have a much higher risk of developing cancer than the rest of the population.
Why do they do it?
“We’re helping people at the worst times of their lives,” Kenny said. “And once you’ve experienced the feeling of placing a child safely in his mother’s arms, you want more of it.”