Monday, May 12, 2008

Another story...

This one's from the Kentville Advertiser - and what I love about it is that the reporter went back and talked to some of the firefighters I worked with in Wolfville.


Many young boys dream of becoming a firefighter. However, for Russell Wangersky, it wasn’t long before his dream job turned into a nightmare.

Burning Down the House is the true story of this critically acclaimed author’s eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter.

Wangersky was an Acadia University student working in the periodicals section of the Vaughan Library when he applied to join the Wolfville Volunteer Fire Department. It was 1983.

He and Wolfville native David Hennessey were young and enthusiastic recruits. Under the tutelage of veterans like Gerald Wood, Tim MacLeod and Harold Stewart, Wangersky learned the ropes.

He saw his first dead body after an accident in Gaspereau and, almost surprisingly, he became hooked on the fire service. About 18 months later, Wangersky left Wolfville to pursue work in Ontario. He served later as a firefighter outside St. John’s, Newfoundland and reached the rank of deputy chief.

Burning Down the House offers a unique insider’s vision of the often dangerous world of firefighting. It’s a heartfelt memoir about the emotional and psychological toll firefighting took on Wangersky’s personal life, including his marriage, family and, ultimately, his mind.

Written in a visceral literary prose, Wangersky takes readers with him on a harrowing journey of car accidents, house fires and medical calls. Building a map of traumatic memories — from performing CPR on a colleague’s father to close calls in house fires and an almost fatal fuel explosion — Wangersky reveals the secrets of firefighting that many emergency workers never let themselves admit.

He still suffers night terrors when he wakes up reliving first responder situations.

Haunted by pieces of experience

Bob Cook, who is the mechanic on staff at the Wolfville station, can relate. He says most volunteers are haunted by pieces of their experience. For him, it was a collision involving a girl about the same age as his daughters.

Today, Cook says those in the fire service are better at recognizing when their peers need help. “People aren’t smoke-eaters anymore. They don’t have to be big heroes. If they withdraw and change character, we know they need help.”

Tim MacLeod, who is now Wolfville’s fire chief, remembers Wangersky and that accident in Gaspereau. He has read Burning Down the House and compliments the author, saying, “it’s a good read.”

MacLeod says firefighters compartmentalize the trauma they experience in different ways. Since the early ‘80s, Critical Incident Stress Debriefings have been instituted so the mental health of members can be maintained.

According to MacLeod, all firefighters will recognize the adrenalin rush Wangersky describes so well. He adds that most go on auto pilot when actually firefighting.

“It’s afterward that you replay it,” he says. “Collisions are hard to swallow. You have to be heartless. There aren’t a lot of breaks in the fire service.”

MacLeod notes that the department Wangersky went to in Newfoundland was about half the size of Wolfville’s, but “you can see a lot of shit in eight years,” he says of his career fighting fires.

The fire chief remembers the author as an atypical recruit in the sense of size. “He was a little guy.” He says his department trains about six or seven recruits each year.

“We’ve had some really good students. They get better training now,” notes MacLeod. “One went on to be fire chief in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”

The managing editor of the Telegram in St. John’s, Wangersky is also a writer whose first collection of short stories, The Hour of Bad Decisions, was longlisted for a Giller Award. Burning Down the House sells for $32.95.

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