So much for Saturday night and the movie they rented.
He flew out the door, helmet in hand, with the pager’s first call to duty somewhere around 8 p.m. The house was fully engulfed by the time he arrived moments later, one of a row of older wooden homes on the beach in White Rock sardined so close together that you could stick your arm out a window and shake hands with your next door neighbour.
An unpredictable wind raced in from the water, fanning the fire to and fro in a frenzied wave of flames that threatened the clustered houses in its path.
The good guys won the fight that night, but he was exhausted by the time he got home in the early hours of Sunday. Fortunately, it was a weekend call so he didn’t have to drag himself to work in the warehouse hours later; all part of the drill and price paid by the volunteers so many communities count on to keep us safe while we sleep.
You can’t fathom what it’s like until you pull on the turnout gear and race to a call that can take your life or a limb in the blink of an eye. Despite the training and experience there’s no escaping the fact that firefighters die in the line of duty because they signed on to respond to a range of terror-filled scenarios, often first on the scene in situations that would send the rest of us running for cover.
It’s impossible to comprehend the carnage encountered at crash scenes, the times they have watched someone gasp their last breath, the anguished families my brother has tried to console during his 40-odd years as a volunteer and career firefighter.
The toll it takes on firefighters is a burden invisible to most who know them, except for their soul mates and colleagues. Tom has confided in me a little more about how the job has changed as his retirement approached; the mounting frustration of dealing with the staggering number of deaths from overdoses since fentanyl first cast a deadly shadow with a frequency no one foresaw.
So this is for you, younger brother, an attempt to say thank you forever for putting it all on the line, for never backing down from whatever horrors awaited, for saving all those lives for so many years. I’m so proud of your efforts and so relieved you came through intact. I hope your retirement helps heal the trauma rarely shared because no one can understand what firefighters face until they strap on the gear, climb into the truck and race down the road with sirens blaring.
And to Josh – still tied for first as a favourite nephew – stay safe out there as you begin your journey on the path forged by your father. Those are big boots to fill, but I know they will fit you just fine.
Rick Stiebel is a semi-retired local journalist.