Heroism is not just running into burning buildings

Next week is Fire Prevention Week in Canada.

Fun fact: Fire Prevention Week is observed each year in October in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire which started October 8, 1871. It killed approximately 300 people and destroyed roughly 17,500 buildings and 3.3 square miles of the city.

When we think of our fire departments and their services, we focus on the flames.

It’s the running into buildings and the quick response to contain a grass or forest fire before it is out of control.

Those are heroic efforts.

Fire prevention, though, is also a huge part of what our volunteer fire departments contribute. It’s just not so sexy.

Twenty-two years ago I was publishing and editing a newspaper in small town Paris, Ontario.

In this role I covered approximately 384 school fire station tours. At some point I could have easily gone forward and conducted them myself, if given a helmet and a key to the building.

Stop. Drop. Roll. Etc.

At the same time I had a daughter in the town’s co-op preschool, which naturally availed itself of a fire station visit each year.

On that outing Mom was multi-tasking – hovering, and also taking the requisite photos of kids in the trucks, or hugging the fire pole (there was actually a fire pole.)

These tours were almost always led by a volunteer firefighter named John.

John owned a busy garage and had a family.

However he took the time – on approximately 384 occasions – to suit up and talk to kids about fire safety.

That particular year I remember firefighter John getting down on his hands and knees, so as to be at the same level as the children, wearing his gear and a face mask.

He told them: This looks scary. And fires are scary. But you are never to hide in a fire and you are never to hide from someone who looks like me because I will be helping you.

Then he took off his breathing apparatus and showed them he was a real person and not a creature from outer space.

When the school term ended there was, of course, a graduation. Preschool graduation in Ontario is very important, involving caps and gowns, limousines and presents.

The parents’ gift to the teacher – who was quite awesome and really all preschool teachers deserve medals – was a book we made called “What I Learned from Debbie.”

It had a picture of each student and comments about what they got out of their preschool experience.

I learned not to walk up the slide.

I learned tomato juice is yucky.

I learned to wash my hands before snack.

I learned to share. (Totally positive that one was written by a parent.)

And there was one sprite named Stephanie. She had freckles and long dark hair, big brown eyes.

She said: I learned not to hide in a fire.

It was a morning three months later when I picked up the daily paper from a neighboring community and lost my breath.

Stephanie and her family – mom and four kids – had just moved to that city into a rental accommodation that did not have working smoke detectors.

It was destroyed.

One of Stephanie’s brothers suffered severe burns and was hospitalized for weeks. But they all got out alive.

It was later her mom told me the rest of the story.

She said it was her five-year-old daughter who took control when she, herself, was disoriented and panicking.

Stephanie insisted they had to stay low, on the floor, because there is no smoke down there.

She helped find her brothers, who had not been to preschool.

Volunteer firefighters do run into buildings, and they do contain grass and forest fires before they get out of control.

But they also spend uncounted and undramatic hours promoting fire prevention and safety, participating in demonstrations and events and educating the public.

That saves lives, as well.

I wrote about this incident once before, for a newspaper back in the place and the day.

Firefighter John attended the office that week, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable. He said: You made me look like a hero.


Just something to think about and appreciate, during Fire Prevention Week.

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