Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Burning down the house by Russell Wangersky
I decided to read this book for two reasons:
1. my brother worked as a volunteer firefighter for the New Minas Volunteer Fire Department in the late 1980's (maybe Russell Wangersky knew him) and
2. I have an interest in the fascinating world of firefighter culture
"Burning Down the House" by Russell Wangersky is a fascinating, well written book about being a volunteer firefighter in Canada. Wangersky became a firefighter when he was 21 signing onto the Wolfville Department. He didn't meet the physical criteria for working in a paid position, a situation similar to my own brother who at the time worked for Acadia University as a librarian! So, he joined as a "vollie". Eventually, after leaving for one year, Wangersky returned to volunteer firefighting in the town of Portugal Cove- St. Philip's in Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula.
What Wangersky didn't realize was that firefighting was more than just going to fires - it included all kinds of calls from traffic accidents to farm mishaps. It meant seeing some truly horrible situations and seeing people at some of the most private and personal moments in their lives. Some of Wangersky's descriptions are visceral but they do portray what it must have been like to be exposed to these situations on a regular basis.
Eventually Wangersky found he could no longer just leave behind what happened to him during these calls. He experienced the classic symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome, having nightmares and questioning his own usefulness on the job. He told no one what he was experiencing, not his wife nor his firefighting colleagues.
Wangersky writes about the silence within the profession about what goes on during calls. What he himself terms the "mythos of firefighting" that firefighters are always big and strong both physically and mentally. That, although psychological care was always available, firefighting staff didn't avail themselves of this because of the concerns that it could marr their careers and their working relationships with other firefighters.
Wangersky writes about the fiction that surrounds the firefighting profession - that firefighters are heroes - always. About how when a firefighter dies, he's a hero whether his actions were an act of stupidity or of legitimate bravery.
"Firefighters don't make bad decisions; what they make, so the fiction goes, is brave ones. They are expected to keep doing it, time after time. Everyone else is supposed to keep up that pretence. And for the most part we do.
There's no one to blame. You're put in extremely high-stress situations, where lives depend on you making the right decisions; but more than that, they depend on someone making a decision, any decision. So a lot gets swept under the carpet, mistakes along with it." p.227
I would have liked to have known more about how Wangersky's colleagues reacted to him leaving. Were they aware of how much he was affected by his work as a firefighter? How long did it take him to recover from his experiences. It will be interesting to see just how the firefighting profession responds to this book. Will his claims be dismissed because he was a "vollie"?
Overall, a great read for the guy in your life.
Listen to CBC Maritime Magazine's interview with author Russell Wangersky.
You can also check out Wangersky's blog at Burning down the House.
Finally, just as an aside. I've only had to deal with the fire department once in my life to date. That was when my son, then 2 years old, put on a pair of handcuffs he found in the park behind our house in Hamilton. I tried picking the first handcuff lock and finally after trying unsuccessfully to contact the local police I called 911. (I know, it wasn't an emergency, but I was pretty panicked by this time!) Well, the fire truck came roaring down our suburban street, siren blaring, lights flashing. Two very large firefighters came stomping into our livingroom with a huge axe! My son's eyes were huge. They cut the handcuffs off him. It was pretty darn funny, but I was pretty darn grateful!