Presenting: Fire Station 227 – History, Heroism and Community Connections in the Beach
I asked Bill how the perception of firefighters might have changed since 911. He responded that firefighting is certainly a very highly regarded profession, and that today there is a greater understanding of his occupation. People now understand that firefighters go into burning buildings and put their lives on the line to save others. Bill quoted statistics that even today the average life span of a fire fighter is ten years less than the average Canadian. These statistics hold true despite better protective equipment. He added that the constant exposure to stress and the resulting fluctuation in adrenaline levels takes a toll on the body.
The role of the captain is to supervise the crew, but it is hard to tell an active firefighter not to do any work and to refrain from getting involved hands-on in a real fire. Bill said that it is a very rewarding profession that enjoys the respect of the community.
Fire Station 227 experiences about five to eight runs a day, or about 1500 runs a year. About 50% of the runs are fire-related, i.e. when someone smells smoke, or a smoke detector goes off, the fire department has to come out to investigate.
Fire Station 227’s fire truck
The lifestyle of a firefighter is also highly unique: at present his station is trying out a 24-hour shift system for a year. This means for example that a firefighter would work for 24 hours from Monday 7 am to Tuesday 7 am. Then they would come in again on Thursday at 7 am and work 24 hours until Friday morning. After this they would have six days off. In the second week their two 24 hours shifts would go from Friday to Saturday morning and from Sunday to Monday morning. Then the cycle for the first week would start again.
Being on a 24-hour shift means that the firefighters have to actually live in the fire hall and cannot leave the premises. As a result they actually go grocery shopping in full uniform in their truck, just to be ready to respond in case they get an emergency call. Fire Station 227 has 4 shifts with 20 people working here and each truck has five firefighters working on it. Bill has worked with his colleagues for a long time, and it certainly takes mutual consideration to be living with a group of colleagues in such close quarters.
Chief’s Aide Pat McFarlane and District Chief Bob Buchan
Another unique responsibility of fire fighters in the Beach is water rescue. Bill clarifies that they are responsible for shore water rescue, while rescues in the lake are to be handled by fire boats, police and EMS boats. Every year there are several drownings or near-drownings in the Beach, so the water rescue skills of these firefighters are called on frequently.
Bill also explained that all fire trucks are equipped with a GPS system so they can always be traced by the dispatch office and pulled in on a local emergency. A tiered response system directs fire trucks from different areas to where they are needed, with the closest trucks responding first. The truck from the fire station in the Beach routinely goes as far north as North York to help out with emergency calls there.
Bill Libbus had given me an extremely informative introduction to firefighting in Toronto, and just before I left I had a chance to take some pictures of three of his colleagues. He also said I just missed one of his co-workers, Doug Browne, who is a real character and would have been a great interview candidate. I thought I might just try to come back in the next few days and have a chat with Doug as well. This brief visit had definitely been very enlightening, and I was glad I made this impromptu visit to Fire Station 227.
Bill Libbus and Derek Clausen from the Main Street Fire Station
February 1, 2007: A Conversation with Doug Browne – A Local Boy Working at the Local Fire Hall
The theme of the day was firefighting. After my interview with Ralph Noble, also a firefighter and the creator of the famous Balmy Beach Mural, I decided to pay another visit to Fire Station 227 where I thought I would try to see if I could connect with Doug Browne, the firefighter that Bill Libbus had mentioned a few days ago. Chances were far from certain, considering the firefighters’ complex schedule which involves numerous days off in between shifts.
I knocked on the side door again, and one of the firefighters opened the door. I was in luck: Acting Captain Doug Browne was at work today, and I would have a chance to meet this outgoing gregarious guy. Doug came downstairs and it was immediately obvious that he enjoys dealing with people. We went upstairs to sit down in a quiet room so Doug would be able to tell me more about himself.
Doug Browne, up in the fire tower, showing the hooks for hanging the hoses
Doug Browne is a Beacher through and through. His dad, Chief Bill Browne, also a firefighter, and his mom Rodene Browne, raised him on Hambly Avenue. Doug affectionately refers to his mother as “Queen of the Beach”. He went to local schools including Glen Ames Public School, Williamson Road Junior School and Malvern Collegiate. Doug has been a member of the Balmy Beach Club since he is ten years old and at 50 years of age, he has already accumulated 40 years of membership in this venerated Beach institution.
Originally Doug started his working life as a carpenter. He used to rebuild homes in the area and never had any intentions of becoming a firefighter. He fondly recalled a childhood image of his mom and dad kissing before his dad would leave for his shift with the Toronto Fire Department. His dad used to say “Get yourself a trade first, and maybe one day you’ll become a firefighter”.
One day, after completing a carpentry job, Doug went to visit his client to get paid for the project and realized that his co-worker had taken all the money. Frustrated about this experience, he went to talk to his father and asked him “Dad, how do I get hired with the Fire Department”? That was the first step towards his career as a firefighter. Doug added that he is still looking for the guy who cheated him out of his carpentry pay, because he would like to thank him for turning his life in a different direction.
View over Queen Street East from the fire tower