Two heroes

My father is a retired firefighter, trained to fight structural and aircraft fires. For years, he worked for the Department of Transportation and was stationed at various Canadian Armed Forces bases. His last posting was at CFB Shilo. 

During the many years he worked as a firefighter, he rarely provided any details about his job, though he did periodically mention it could be extremely dangerous. 

Mostly, he said that his days were filled with mundane tasks that had to be performed. I would later learn that those mundane tasks were done to ensure that firefighters and their equipment were in a state of readiness to meet the call to duty when it arose. Firefighters literally have only minutes to arrive at a fire to save property and the lives of a building’s residents. Every second counts and that’s why they are in a perpetual state of preparedness.

As a youngster, I had the impression from television sitcoms and their ilk that firefighters liked to goof off a lot, slide down poles for fun and play practical jokes on each other. 

My father told me there may have been the odd practical joke to break the tension arising between calls, but firefighters were deadly serious about their equipment and having it in tip-top shape. Their equipment saves theirs and other people’s lives, he would firmly say.

Most of the information I gleaned from my father about firefighting was from occasionally watching a Hollywood-generated movie or TV program with him that had a fire-related plot.

“That’s wrong,” he would say, explaining some detail about how firefighters would tackle a fire.

But, that was it.

He also returned home safely, so in my mind I never imagined that there was danger lurking around every corner when firefighters tackle a blaze.

The fact that firefighters don’t always return home safely was cruelly brought to bear upon Winnipeggers following a  Sunday, February 4 fire. Captains Harold Lessard, 55, and Tom Nichols, 57, did not return home after fighting a fire at 15 Gabrielle Roy Place in St. Boniface. Nichols had 32 years of experience with the fire department while Lessard had 31.

Trapped on the second floor of the house, it was a flashover — an ever-present danger during a fire — that claimed their lives. According to media reports, the ball of fire reached 1,000°C in seconds. 

Firefighters may take all the precautions possible and possess extensive training, but it’s the unexpected that is their greatest danger. Fire by its very nature is exceedingly unpredictable, something my father always stressed.

Besides claiming two lives, Edward Weibe, 51, Lionel Crowther, 33, Darcy Funk, 35, and Scott Atchison, 33, were injured in the blaze. Like Lessard and Nichols, they had been trapped on the second floor when the flashover occurred.

The tragedy reminds us that firefighters risk life and limb on our behalf. It may be their chosen occupation, but the bottom line is that they are performing an extremely valuable public service that benefits us all. 

Let us remember that firefighters are in the business of saving lives by placing their lives on the line.

The collapse of the Twin Towers in New York put an exclamation mark to the perils firefighters face. When the towers fell to the earth in a heap of rubble, among the dead were 256 firefighters who had entered the buildings in an attempt to help bring people to safety.

The recent tragedy in Winnipeg reinforced the recognition that their profession is fraught with danger.

“The men and women of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service face danger on a daily basis to protect the citizens of our city,” Mayor Sam Katz said in a press release a day after the fatal fire. “They invest in the preservation of our lives, and deserve our utmost respect and appreciation for the duties they perform.”

The mayor showed that he firmly believed these words. During the memorial service on Wednesday, February 14, for the two fallen firefighters, Katz  could barely control his emotions as he gave his condolences to their families. His voice broke numerous times as he described the two “humble spirits ... ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

It was a massive show of support for the stricken families at the MTS Centre attended by 2,000 firefighters, paramedics, police and soldiers from across North America. At the same time, it was a show of support for the firefighters in attendance who lay their lives on the line day in and day out.

“Most of us cannot truly understand what it means to embrace a profession that holds the possibility of danger or death,” said Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allen, “and we count our blessings that there are dedicated men and women that take on this challenge every day.”

Also at the memorial were three of the four firefighters injured in the February 4 fire. One firefighter even arrived on a stretcher and was attended by medical staff. Another injured firefighter remains in hospital with serious burns to his body.

Lessard family friend Bruce Ross read a statement from Lynn, Lessard’s widow, who was at the memorial but too distraught to speak.

“His dedication to his job is now legendary,” said the statement. “But prior to the fourth of February, he just did it for a living. He never thought of himself as a hero, just a dad and a husband who happened to be a firefighter.”

He may not have thought himself a hero, but that is what he and Nichols now are to many and deservedly so. We owe all firefighters our gratitude.