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Presenting: Fire Station 227 – History, Heroism and Community Connections in the Beach
Having just completed my interview with Lido Chilelli, the creator of the Toronto International Beaches Jazz Festival, I was planning to head east on Queen Street to find a nice place for lunch. As I was walking eastwards, taking in the streetscape, I realized that one place is and continues to be a definite fixture in the Beach: just a few steps from the intersection of Woodbine and Queen is Toronto Fire Station 227, housed in an elegant historic building that is now more than 100 years old. I thought there was a story in there somewhere and made up my mind to pop in.
I decided to try my luck and drop in unannounced on the firefighters for an impromptu interview. I opened the back door and saw a bunch of firefighters’ uniforms hung up on hooks and thought I had reached their change room. I concluded it was not a good idea to barge in there. So I tried the side door and sure enough, after a couple of knocks the door opened and one of the firefighters on duty let me in.
After I introduced myself and the “Celebrate Toronto” project, Bill Libbus, a First Class Firefighter, checked with his captain to see if it was okay for me to interview him, and after he got the green light he started to show me around. He first showed me the fire truck which was parked on the main floor inside the fire station. A pair of firefighter’s boots and a uniform were standing on the ground as if someone had flown right out of them, and I thought that made a perfect humorous still life.
Then Bill showed me the fire tower, a 80 foot high tower that actually has a purpose other than to just house the famous clock. The fire tower is indeed used to hang up wet fire hoses that need to dry. Bill added that most people don’t realize that the fire towers on the old fire stations have a practical purpose; people often think they are only there for decorative purposes or to house the clock.
Of course he also showed me the slide (actually two slides) that firefighters would use to slide down from the second floor. And he showed me an old gong used to rattle up the firefighters for an emergency response, which actually is no longer in use today.
With most of the main sights covered, we sat down in the kitchen and Bill started to educate me about the duties and the life of Toronto firefighters. He himself has been here at this station for 17 years. The building is truly historic, it was built in 1905, and more than 100 years ago firefighters would use horses to pull their equipment. It was originally called Fire Station #17, but since Toronto’s 1999 amalgamation with the former municipalities of North York, East York, York, Etobicoke and Scarborough, the fire station was renamed. Today, Fire Hall 227 has one pumper truck which requires a crew of four firefighters: a captain who is in charge and responsible for the safety of the three firefighters on his crew.
Bill explained that other fire stations might have more trucks, or they might have different equipment, for example aerial trucks which are equipped with ladders for emergency calls to high rise buildings. I inquired into the routine of the firefighters, and Bill explained that during the day they have regular training sessions in order to re-familiarize themselves with safety, first aid, CPR, fire and truck procedures as well as firefighter policies.
Fire fighters are first responders, which means that if someone calls 911 because of a heart attack, often a fire truck will get there first and provide CPR, oxygen or defibrillation equipment. Toronto has more fire stations than ambulance stations which explains why a fire truck might often be the first emergency vehicle to arrive on the scene. Toronto firefighters often handle patient transport to the hospitals and about 50% of their emergency calls are of a purely medical nature.
I learned that the area that Fire Station 227 is responsible for stretches from Coxwell in the west to Victoria Park in the east, and from the lakeshore in the south to Danforth Avenue in the north. Bill explained that all fire calls require two pumper trucks, one aerial truck and a fire chief. Each of Toronto’s 21 fire districts has its own district chief who usually races to a fire in a red van. When Station 227 responds to a fire, the aerial truck comes from the fire station on Main Street. As an example, Bill mentioned that today there was a fire in the Main and Danforth area in a private house, and it took the crew four hours to extinguish the fire. The fire chief was still scheduled to go back to the location later today for further investigations.
As far as the Beach is concerned, Bill Libbus explained that almost all the fires are residential in nature. There are very few high rise buildings and no industrial locations in the area. About five years ago there was a major fire at the eastern end of Queen Street where two people died and about 20 fire trucks were called out. When two pumper trucks and the aerial truck are not enough, additional fire crews are called out with four vehicles each, and the response to the emergency gets escalated into two, three, four or more alarm fires, meaning that additional teams of four vehicles are pulled in. Bill also referred to Toronto’s Great Fire of 1907 where the whole city was burning. He could not even speculate how many alarms this type of fire would have triggered. Literally every fire fighter would have been called in to extinguish this historic inferno.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
So Doug started working at the North York Fire Department in 1984. His dad foresaw the amalgamation that would happen between the five former cities and boroughs that used to make up Metropolitan Toronto, and this meant that Doug would have the chance to one day work right in his beloved neighbourhood, the Beach. As the acting chief at the Bermondsey and Eglinton Fire Hall, he was part of the east command. Doug knew that Fire Station 227 was highly touted, and that firefighters were lining up for years to get into this fire hall.
Then one day he got a phone call from his captain who said “How would you like to walk to work on Monday?” Doug replied “I’ll put on my running shoes and run to work”. The chief then said “Don’t forget to bring breakfast on Monday”. He has now been at Fire Station 227 for four years and loves it. On occasion he brings his children Nicky and Aimee here, and sometimes his neighbours and friends drop in to visit. Doug has a long waiting list of people wanting to come and see the fire tower.
One interesting side effect of being a firefighter in his own neighbourhood is that sometimes he gets called to help people that he knows. Just recently there was an emergency call involving one of Doug’s acquaintances. The man had had a heart attack, and Doug administered first aid and encouraged him to hang on. Unfortunately the man did not make it and passed away. Doug admits that these are strange experiences.
Quite frequently Doug and his colleagues are down by the beach in their fire boots, doing rescues. The calls are varied and range from fires to water rescues and car accidents. But life as a firefighter is not all about life-threatening rescues. There is a very strong sense of camaraderie among the firefighters, and many of them are actively involved in sports. Doug himself is an avid hockey player and has been playing this sport since he was a child. His favourite hockey rink continues to be the outdoor rink at Kew Gardens, just 10 minutes away from his fire hall.
Together with the Balmy Beach Old Boys, a hockey team at the Balmy Beach Club, Doug has traveled to different hockey games in Europe and visited countries such as Switzerland, Austria and Germany. With the Toronto Buds, another hockey team, he toured England in 1992 and adds that hockey is his vehicle for travel and for building international friendships. He also is a member of the Toronto Firefighters Hockey League, he loves to keep active. Then Doug showed me a picture, featuring him as a young hockey player at age 16. Also featured in this photo is Lido Chilelli, founder of the Toronto Beaches International Jazz Festival.
Doug has had a penchant for media and publicity for a long time. He was also featured in the North York Firefighters calendar, an experience which he describes as great fun and adds that he became a minor celebrity. Proceeds from the calendar were donated to the North York General Hospital. He chuckled and added that he met his wife in his underwear and fire boots at a dance show, and they fell instantly in love. His wife is a nurse at Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, and he describes their relationship ‘like peanut butter and jelly” – a firefighter and a nurse go together like two peas in a pod.
His love for his neighbourhood has become evident over the years. In 1989 he owned a store called “Beach Sports”. He felt the area needed a little boost, so together with some schoolmates and colleagues from the Fire Department he created the “Beach sweatshirt”, promoting the neighbourhood. The store did well until the GST (General Sales Tax) was introduced, and the group reluctantly had to let the store go, but Doug enjoyed the experience and has no regrets.
After our initial conversation Doug was so kind as to take me on another tour of the building, this time of the upper floors. He showed me the dormitory where all the firefighters sleep and live during their 24 hour shifts. Another floor up is an exercise room, and Doug explained that today’s firefighters are all very fit because the department encourages them to stay in shape. Up we went into the fire tower, through a narrow set of stairs that opened up into a small room with a beautiful view all over Queen Street, with windows facing in all four directions. A great view of the downtown skyline and the lake unfolded in front of my eyes. I also peeked east over the Queen Street strip. Doug explained that as a kid he would go swimming to the outdoor pool at the foot of Woodbine Avenue, and he and his friends would always look at the fire tower of the fire station to see whether it was time already to go home.
From this small room we climbed up a vertical wooden ladder into the room that features the four clock faces and the mechanism that turns the hands of the clock. A central box in the middle of the room turns four rods, each of which is connected to a mechanism that turns the hands on the clock faces. I was tickled pink to be up here in the fire tower and get a real behind-the-scenes look at one of the true landmarks in the Beach, an experience that reminded me of my trip to the roof and to the bowels of the Royal York Hotel.
After enjoying a beautiful view of the city in all directions Doug and I climbed down again and I was ready to head out for lunch. My stomach was growling and I was planning to check out Akida Restaurant right across the street, a Japanese seafood house where I was planning to have a well-deserved lunch.
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