Where There is Smoke engaged families during Fire Prevention Week

A headphone and flyers are displayed on a table with a sign that encourages attendees to sit and listen

Fire Prevention Week 2019 ran from October 6 to 12. It is a time where communities and fire services across the province host a number of events to help raise awareness and keep people safe. As an early kickoff, the Toronto Fire & EMS Training Centre invited us to share a special presentation of Where There Is Smoke — an audio installation of work stories by female firefighters — on Saturday, October 5th in Leslieville.

The installation was set in the atrium during the open house, alongside puppet shows, colouring stations, a decorate your own cupcake display, and a junior firefighter challenge.

“I think the organizers were thinking that Where There Is Smoke would offer something for the parents or grandparents,” recounts Artistic co-Director Tristan R. Whiston.

“The audience was mostly middle-class couples with kids under the age of five. Attention span about 30 seconds. So, we tried to accommodate that by offering an ‘out loud’ version that didn’t contain any of the heavy material (like references to suicide or trauma) — more of the poetry or funny pieces — so that if all you heard was one or two minutes as you were passing through, you would sort of get the idea. If you wanted more than that, there were private headphones that had more material on them.”

Over 200 people came through that day, with about 85 sitting down and listening to the piece on headphones. Past presentations of this work have engaged primarily with adults, so it was interesting to watch and hear responses from children about this project.

“Most of the kids going past were totally oblivious to the installation because they were really young and on their way to the puppet show in the room next door,” explains Whiston. “But there were some who really wanted to hear, so I set them up at a table together with a parent so they were all listening to the same thing.

“The piece they were listening to was about eight minutes long. Two of the kids listened for about 10 minutes and then moved on. But three of them sat there for over 30 minutes, listening without moving. At one point, I realized that they must have heard the piece on a loop about four times before they stopped. And that was because a parent made them leave.”

Many of the children expressed how much they liked the installation. But there was one comment that surprised the artists.

“A parent asked [their child] what it was about, and the only comment I remember was one boy saying something to the effect of ‘You can die if you are a firefighter,'” Whiston recalls.

“The parent was like, ‘Really? Is that what you learned?’ And the kid was like, ‘Yeah, it’s dangerous.’

“I waited until he left and listened to the whole piece again because I was like, maybe I forgot what was on that tape, but in fact, there was nothing about death or danger or dying…so who knows.”