I was already hanging out the seventh-storey window when I remembered why the fireman said “bend your knees.”
Someone who has never rappelled down the side of the Toronto Fire Academy before might get a little tense, even on a sunny day, even with three firefighters working the ropes above.
And if that straight-legged rookie should push out too far from the wall, so that his boot heels no longer touch the concrete, and his tip-toes are just scraping by…
That’s when he might be real glad to suddenly touch ground, nice as the view was, and learn nothing more about how it might have looked after flipping upside-down.
Firefighting in Toronto is changing, and not only because the buildings are getting taller and tougher to scale.
At a day-in-the-life event called Fire Ops 101, firefighters at the Eastern Avenue academy showed a bunch of politicians and a few hapless reporters what 25°C feels like in bunker gear (“Basically it’s like wearing a snowsuit”), before hauling a firehose into a burning building and then dousing a flaming car called “Car-B-Que.”
Wearing a scuba-like mask and air tank, all that smoke and fire felt real enough. After the burning building drill, I came out shaking.
But throughout the day, what surprised me most were the scenarios with no flames at all.
Firefighter Bernice Halsband works on one of Toronto’s two Hazmat trucks. It’s less a fire truck than a rolling science lab.
Not long before Fire Ops, Halsband responded to a “white powder” call, together with a police bomb technician and a paramedic, all of them trained in counter-terrorism.
Someone had been mailed a suspicious envelope.
Halsband walked into the room with radiation detectors and meters to detect four types of hazardous gas and one to watch the oxygen level. She ran a test for blister and nerve agents.
When that came up negative, Halsband let the bomb tech in, who did a “flash test” to see if the stuff in the envelope was combustible.
It wasn’t. Another test showed no biohazards, and a pH test showed it was slightly basic.
“The substance we tested was grey-ish, powdery,” Halsband said. “It looked like pencil shavings.”
Finally, Halsband tested some of the powder with a Haz ID — a mass spectrometer that can identify a material by firing a laser through it.
“It told us it was tri-base chloroethylene,” she said. “It was bone ash.”
Halsband said the Haz ID can pick out thousands of chemical compounds, even recognizing Windex and other name-brand products.
But there are times a firefighter can identify whether materials are toxic without a fancy gizmo.
“I had a couch fire on a balcony once, and I couldn’t believe the colours,” she said.
Whatever it was made of, the couch burned bright blue and purple, yellow and green.
“I was mesmerized,” she said. “My bunker suit smelled so weird afterwards. It’s unbelievable what’s out there these days.”
Dr. Michael Feldman would agree, but he might add that some of the unbelievable things out there are living people.
Dr. Feldman is medical director of Toronto’s EMS Special Operations program, and he oversees the development of Toronto Fire Services’ CPR program.
When he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Feldman said that when someone was found without vital signs, people usually called a coroner. Few knew CPR.
Today, thanks to better CPR, defibrillators, and better communication between responders and ER doctors, about 9 per cent of Toronto’s cardiac arrest victims who are found without vital signs go on to make full recoveries. That’s well over 100 people a year.
“We can literally fill rooms like this, every single year, with people who’ve gone home alive without brain damage,” he said.
“It really is a modern miracle. They were truly, actually dead.”
Dr. Feldman said he keeps telling firefighters, though he admits they don’t always like to hear it, that with the little defibrillator machines they carry in their trucks, they will save more lives over their careers than with all their firefighting and rescues combined.
Sidney Zigah is a six-year Toronto firefighter who knows his CPR, and has climbed into and been taped inside a Level-A Hazmat suit.
But Zigah works on one of five specialized units in Toronto that are equipped and trained for all kinds of other emergencies: car-accident extractions, cliff side rescues, lifting people out of confined spaces.
Two days after Fire Ops 101, one of the “squad” units got a call near Blue Mountain, where a man had been stuck in a 12-metre crevice overnight. They are the people to call when your three-year-old sticks his finger into the perforated post of a stop sign – the ones who will grind off the post a few inches above and below the finger, then follow to the hospital and see if the doctor or surgeon needs some finer work.
But for all his specialized training and the new challenges he faces, Zigah taught me a small but important lesson in firefighting tradition.
After guiding me through all the beeps and gauges on my compressed-air tank, Zigah took a minute to show me how firefighters always leave their bunker pants rolled over their boots, ready to step into.
It’s something that goes way back, to the days when firefighters wore hip waders and oversized raincoats, he says, and it hasn’t changed. A firefighter is always ready to go.