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True heroes

June 2007
Recently some Toronto Police officers were honoured as heroes for rescuing some people from a burning building. There were no serious injuries, but all parties, including the police officers, were treated for smoke inhalation. I not surprised they were treated for smoke inhalation. Now this brings me to my point that although it CERTAINLY is an act of BRAVERY, I’m not entirely sure, under some circumstances, that it’s not an act of stupidity either.


I know it sounds like I am criticizing these officers, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We tend to throw around the label “hero” far too much, but these officers are truly are heroes. There are just some points to consider and I do have some knowledge of what I speak.

Although I’m not a firefighter by trade (I’m a police officer too, actually), I did spend 13 years in the Canadian Navy, but once again, not as a firefighter. However, every one who serves aboard a ship has to be trained in firefighting procedures (in the middle of the Atlantic you can’t simply dial 911), so I have fought actual fires (although in training exercises only).

Firstly, it’s usually the smoke that kills you in a fire situation, not the actual flames. That’s why firefighters wear a breathing apparatus , along with a fire-retardant suit, when they go into a burning building. I repeat, THAT’S WHY FIREFIGHTERS WEAR BREATHING APPARATUSES. With modern houses, there are literally dozens of toxic chemicals that are released when they burn, emanating from everything from the preservatives in the wood, to chemicals in the furniture and carpets, to any household cleaners that may give off fumes if heated or mixed when the containers melt. All that is without even mentioning hazardous waste fires, such as the Plastinet fire in Hamilton 10 years ago. Many Hamilton area firefighters are still feeling the ill-effects of that one today.

Another great hazard with going into a burning building is that usually you can’t see very far in front of you. A burning room is not like it is in Hollywood movies where you can see clear across the room, with little clean-burning “smudge pot” fires burning throughout. Smoke can be in varying degrees of thickness, making navigating around an unfamiliar floor layout extremely difficult and hazardous. Most of the time, you can barely see your hand in front of your face. In my experience, you just looked for the bright orange glow and that’s where the fire was (and you pointed your hoses).

I’m not saying that I would never go into a burning building to rescue a trapped person. If I came home and found my house on fire with my wife and daughter trapped inside, I can’t say that I would definitely never go in to try to rescue them. It would really depend on my assessment of the severity of the fire. Unlike most people who would be fighting the urge to go in, I would be fighting the urge not to go in. At least I’m aware of the potential dangers that I would face inside a burning building, along with the long-term health problems that I may encounter from inhaling the smoke. As cold as it sounds, what do you think is a better outcome: my wife and daughter perish in a fire, or me trying to rescue them and all 3 of us perish, along with any firefighters that have to come in to rescue us? I think we all know the answer to that one.

However, even entering a burning, but relatively sealed house can prove fatal; the so called “back-draft” effect. I once attended a fire scene where a woman tried to enter her parents house, which was not fully engulfed at the time. She was alerted to the fire when they called her on the phone, saying they were trapped inside. Once she opened the front door, the sudden rush of oxygen caused a massive eruption of flames (oxygen is one of the three elements of a fire, remember). The result was she could not reach her parents upper floor bedroom and the (wood frame) house was now full engulfed. He parents charred remains were located in the rubble of the completely destroyed house the next day.

Congratulations to the officers. You truly are heroes. I hope you never have to show such courage again.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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