Bleary-eyed, I’m bouncing about in the back of a Toronto Fire Services’ rescue truck, cars scattering before our flashing lights and screaming siren. It’s just past two in the morning, and the big red diesel truck roars towards a marina on the Lake Ontario shoreline in the city’s east end. Through the heavy mist, we can smell burning plastic long before we arrive.
To the guys-driver Dave Merrifield, 37; Capt. Jack Cooper, 51, riding shotgun; Jaime McGowan, 38, to my left; and Craig Whitworth, 39, to my right-it’s just another one of the seven 24-hour shifts they work every 28 days at Station 325. Among Canada’s busiest fire stations, it’s smack in the centre of Toronto’s tough east end, where public housing rubs shoulders with million-dollar homes.
This is one of the city’s 82 fire halls, the homes away from home for the 3,000-odd “smoke eaters” while they’re on shift-working, eating, sleeping and waiting. Some halls are small, some large; some are older, some newer; but all have similarly spartan features.
We’re now heading to a “working fire,” which means it’s the real thing, not like the half-dozen or so false alarms I’d been to since 7 a.m. on what turned out to be a not-so-ominous riday the 13th.
A few minutes ago we were sleeping, when the twin tones of the alarm blared and the crew suited up-boots, insulated overalls and heavy protective coats-then hit the road in less than a minute. It could have been a trash fire, a false alarm, someone with chest pains or someone who’d fallen out of his wheelchair. It could have been the recent headline-grabbing propane-facility explosion that claimed a firefighter’s life. Or it could have been nothing at all. You just go-and they do, up to 4,600 times a year at Station 325 alone.
On this call, we’re backing up other crews attending to a white 40-foot yacht belching thick white smoke from burned-out windows. Some 14 trucks and 41 firefighters respond, and the guys work as a team to ensure nothing is left smouldering. The $75,000 boat suffers $40,000 in damage. Ouch.
Back at the hall, sleep beckons-but it’s much too elusive. At 5:30 a.m., an alarm comes in from St. Michael’s Hospital downtown, but we’re called off just as we arrive. So we get to sleep until the relief crew arrives, yawning, coffees in hand, for their shift.
“You know the big one is always going to happen the night you’re not there,” smiles Cooper as we head home. “It’s always the way. You just never know.”