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Fit for Duty

Fit for Duty

It's important first responders keep calm during an emergency, writes Rob Martin, but calmness can easily turn into numbness. Have you let calm turn into numb?

NFPA Impact: February 2015

NFPA Impact: February 2015

Writing about a recent NFPA workshop on new technology, Shayne Mintz explores the fire services' need to adapt and adopt technology to assist firefighters in their jobs, and maintain adequate levels of public safety.

Cornerstone: February 2015

Cornerstone: February 2015

Lyle Quan shares two books that can help fire chiefs lean how to leave strong legacies of sharing, and to grow leaders greater than themselves.

Fit for Duty

Fit for Duty

It's wasn't very long ago that blogger Rob Martin says he wore his injuries like a badge of honour, and ignored the pain. "That is," he writes in his latest blog, "until I had a health wake-up call."

Dispatches

Dispatches

Blogger Jennifer Grigg recently attended a week-long building code course in Vaughan, Ont. The experience was outside her comfort zone, she writes, but staying inside that zone is no way to live.

Feb. 23, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. – I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but everyone in emergency services likely knows someone who is burned out or “crusty”. These people stand out because they carry a negative cloud with them everywhere they go, on and off the job. Thankfully, it’s a minority of people who carry this cloud, but, like an infection, it takes an alert immune system to ward off the impact of negativity. It takes awareness, patience and understanding to help people climb out of their funk. Often though, the rest of the shift or crew working that day can overcome one person’s negative vibe, so we routinely ignore and dismiss them without a lot of thought. But perhaps we shouldn’t! So, if these people represent the minority, who makes up the majority? Are we a group of upbeat, positive people, all joyous and full of bliss? Right – I didn’t think so either. Obviously we have ups and downs too, but where do we fall on the happiness spectrum? Observations such as these started about 10 years into my career as a firefighter, and I slowly began questioning myself about the affects my career choice had on my mental wellbeing. We’ve all heard the “this job will change you” speech, but how many of us truly reflect on what that change entails? How many of us would allow the change if we knew we had a choice? Since my initial aha moment, I have always stepped back from my situations and experiences and acted as a witness to my feelings. I first observe my decisions, then question my choices, and then redirect myself as required. On emergency scenes during which seconds count our training guides us; we may even operate on autopilot. Our departments may conduct post-incident debriefs to review and possibly redirect our actions if necessary. One of the many lessons that has come forward from emergency management experts is this: calm is contagious. Certainly calm is evident on scene and provides first responders with a solid foundation to serve the public well. But calm can sometimes be confused with lack of emotion or feeling. Take a moment and check in with yourself. Have you let calm turn into numb? Numb: deprived of feeling or responsiveness. Sadly, numb is where you might find the majority of first responders hanging out. Don’t think so? Neither did I. I just figured as I aged I was becoming less enthused about the things that formerly made me laugh and feel less upset about burdens or hardships. In a way I was right, but it wasn’t age; it has much more to do with my experience on the job. I was becoming desensitized to what the average person considers traumatic. I realized this numbness is a slippery slope. For a moment, think of our feelings and emotions on a scale from one to 10, where 10 is the positive and one is the negative. All of us would prefer to hang out on the higher end – right? But when we respond to emergencies and attempt to mitigate tragedies and losses, it is impossible to remain at the upper end of the scale. As humans – compassionate ones at that – we can’t help but feel saddened or upset possibly even angry about the tragedies we witness. Over time we learn to build walls, develop a thick skin, and slowly turn to other possibly more damaging methods to create numbness. To put a bit of perspective on this, imagine gently touching the skin of a loved one with your hands. The connection between your skin and theirs, the energy transfer, is undeniable; it can even be described as electric. Now go put on some oven mitts and repeat; not quite the same, is it? Many first responders are walking around with oven mitts on their hearts. It serves the purpose of protecting them from harm, but it also prevents them from fully experiencing the true joys in life. So how do we choose not to let our job change us? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and still protect, respond and perform under the extreme circumstances of emergency response? It comes down to knowing when to wear oven mitts and when it’s OK to take them off. Think of it as PPE for your heart and soul! Like all PPE, it must be properly selected, personalized and worn every time for it to work. Luckily, the first step is easy and it begins just like every life – with your breath. Rob Martin is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario. He is a passionate advocate for healthy living and encourages a balanced approach where functional movement, nutrition, quiet time and fun are the fundamental building blocks for staying fit for duty. Rob is a master trainer with the Ontario Fire College, training firefighters in fire-ground survival techniques, and has attained the disaster canine search team qualification through FEMA. Rob has been trained in critical-incident stress debriefings, defusings and peer-to-peer support, and has served for more than a decade on a critical-incident stress-management team. Following the research chain for mental health led Rob to yoga, where the benefits were immediately obvious. After a couple of years of a personal practice, Rob studied to become a registered yoga teacher. Contact Rob at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , find him on Facebook – Rob Martin yoga – and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101
Feb. 19, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. - In my first blog post on Jan. 28, I spoke of awareness, because we don’t know what we don’t know. In other words, we can’t address issues we don’t know exist. Since then, many of us will have experienced traumatic events, some which may even have involved death. These events no doubt created stress and left a mark on us. So how do we remain intact, complete as men and women? Let’s assess our starting points. What other stressors are we dealing with before we even start our shifts? Are we facing some financial loads, relationship struggles? Are we physically beat up, out of shape, or battling a health “condition”? Is our nutrition being neglected? Are we taking time to properly rest, recover and reboot our brains? These are questions which, when answered honestly, can help us be more aware of our current states of mind and allow us to consciously make choices to maintain or change our practices. I’m willing to bet we can all improve in each area at least a bit or maybe a ton! The four questions above target specific areas of our lives. The first question digs into our level of happiness. Do we feel content and grounded with a strong network of friends and family? Are we doing things that fulfill our passions? Regardless of your religious beliefs, having a sense of purpose provides us with motivation and a reason for being. But don’t freak out if you don’t know your purpose for being here. It doesn’t matter if you have a big-picture purpose in mind or small goals; it only matters that you value them and enjoy what you do. “They” or “it” will keep you centered and grounded when times get tough or when you start down the path of becoming numb. Rescuer personalities often put aside their own happiness in order to provide someone else with the opportunity to be happy. Certainly being adaptable and able to go with the flow will help minimize stress, but be sure to maintain awareness of your own happiness so that long term you don’t suffer. The next discussion is about physical state of our bodies. Most first responders I know have past injuries and issues with which they constantly struggle. Yet when I ask them what they are doing to help themselves I get the shoulder shrug. I know it all too well; that was me not too long ago. I wore my injuries like a badge of honour. I was even aware of the pain and other signs my body was giving me and I chose to ignore them. That is, until I had a health wake-up call. As soon as our physical state is seriously threatened we wake up and pay attention. So let me share something with you: the harder you are on anything, the faster you wear it out. Our bodies are incredible healing machines; under the right conditions they can repair most of our ailments. Take the time to see an expert, or better yet become the expert on you. Seek info that will heal you and begin the process of practicing self-care. That doesn’t mean quitting physical activity; it means mindful activity or movement for a purpose. The human body was designed to move through a much greater range of motion than our current lifestyles challenge it to. Solving injuries and working through limitations will provide the positive type of stress that builds a strong adaptation cycle, giving us resilience for life. Nutrition has to be the most debated, misunderstood, and manipulated topic around. But it doesn’t have to be. I have a simplistic view. Your body is made up of cells; if the cells are stressed then you’re stressed. Chemicals cause cell damage (too much stress). Don’t eat chemicals. I could write a book on the research I’ve found on this topic. But in the end you have to eat real food not food-like products. Aim for unprocessed and non-genetically modified foods, if you can. Strive to eat more clean, organic, green vegetables. Managing your stress at the cellular level will have a remarkable impact on your overall health. My last request of you: shut off the motor once in a while! In fact, daily quiet time to just breathe and rest has been proven to rebuild gray matter in your brain. Don’t call it meditation if you don’t want to, don’t freak out if your mind struggles to settle, just set aside 10 minutes each day to sit quietly and concentrate on breathing. Navy seals use a technique called box breathing – 4x4x4x4 or 5x5x5x5; if possible, breathe through your nose. Inhale for a four count, hold for a four count, exhale for a four count, hold for a four count and so on. Yogis call this pranayama and you can modify and adjust the holds and inhale/exhale durations for different purposes. To relax, you can lengthen your exhales by a couple seconds. The goal is to count your breaths and still your body and mind, but you can’t do it wrong – unless you don’t do it.Rob Martin is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario. He is a passionate advocate for healthy living and encourages a balanced approach where functional movement, nutrition, quiet time and fun are the fundamental building blocks for staying fit for duty. Rob is a master trainer with the Ontario Fire College, training firefighters in fire-ground survival techniques, and has attained the disaster canine search team qualification through FEMA. Rob has been trained in critical-incident stress debriefings, defusings and peer-to-peer support, and has served for more than a decade on a critical-incident stress-management team. Following the research chain for mental health led Rob to yoga, where the benefits were immediately obvious. After a couple of years of a personal practice, Rob studied to become a registered yoga teacher. Contact Rob at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , find him on Facebook – Rob Martin yoga – and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101
Feb. 18, 2015, Beamsville, Ont. - On Sunday, Feb. 8, I attended the annual Four Chaplains Memorial Service at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. A similar service was also held at various military bases and VA hospitals across the country. The four chaplains were four United States Army chaplains who were assigned to accompany 902 soldiers to Greenland onboard the USAT Dorchester during the Second World War. Once a luxury ocean liner, the Dorchester had been converted to a troop transport ship. At 12:55 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943, while en route to Greenland, the Dorchester was attacked by a German U-boat. The Dorchester sank in less than 27 minutes, and took 673 souls with her to the bottom of the North Atlantic. There is not enough room here to go into any detail on the heroic deeds of the four chaplains, but their actions that night helped to save the lives of 229 soldiers and made them an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness. In the end, after doing all they could to save others – including giving up their own life jackets – they were seen arms linked, praying together: a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Methodist minister and a Dutch Reformed minister; shipmates; brothers. “Valour is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.” As a retired firefighter and a combat veteran, I feel qualified to say that first responders are so gifted and are made up of a strong faith, courage and selflessness. First responders rush in where others fear to tread. They have seen a lot – too much maybe – and many now suffer quietly from what they have experienced – from invisible wounds. If you, as a first responder, want to become more resistant, you must be open to the fact that life takes you through significant changes, and it won’t always be a bed of roses. Some first responders may at times feel suicidal and even entertain suicidal actions. It’s important to develop methods of coping with and controlling these impulses. The first step is to find ways to relieve these feelings through less destructive methods. In my last blog, I presented a list of eight things to do when disturbing memories or feelings try to take control of you: pause; sit quietly; focus on how your body feels; notice if you are holding your breath; notice any nervous activity you’re doing; notice your emotions and what thoughts are racing through you head; and take a few deep calming breaths. You must not think of these invisible wounds or impulses as a failure of character or as a mental illness. As with warriors, these are honourable and inevitable wounds; they are proof of your humanity; they are a portal for transformation and a school for wisdom. I ask you then to consider the term post-traumatic growth. You can grow from these; you can discover their blessings and give them meaning. Each time you confront despair you grow and become stronger. If you are willing to do the work, now is the time to make an initial commitment. By reading this blog you have shown that you are aware of a need for change. You may still have some resistance but at least you are open to ideas. You are a survivor, and we need survivors to offer testament against the horror and despair the world sometimes throws at us. The journey through post-traumatic growth is a psychospiritual and a communal one that becomes your roadmap through life. With work and growth the symptoms will fade and will be replaced by wisdom; you will feel better, eventually. First responders form an outer circle of protection for those in the communities they serve. When first responders are wounded, civilians, in turn, must provide outer circles of protection and caregiving for them; for you. Most people have nothing but good things to say about firefighters and other first responders. However, most people know only what they see in the movies or on TV; they mean well but often they don’t understand. Be patient with them, and help them understand. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts and feelings with someone you can trust. Your pain, your invisible wounds came because of your courage and selflessness. Your wounds are honourable and they can heal if you accept them and try to grow from them. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You are not alone. Stay safe. Bruce Lacillade is retired from the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario, where he spent 10 years on the floor as a firefighter and the next 15 years as an inspector in fire prevention. He’s also a U.S. Navy veteran and the chaplain for the American Legion in Ontario and the United Council of Veterans (Hamilton and area). Bruce helps first responders, military personnel, veterans, and their families deal with what he calls moral injuries, or internal conflicts. Contact Bruce at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Feb. 18, 2015, Port Severn, Ont. - You never know what good can come from stepping outside of your comfort zone. In fact, I would venture to say that staying in your comfort zone is, well, comfortable, but that’s really no way to live. I recently spent a week in Vaughan, Ont., attending the building code course – Legal Process for Building Officials. It turned out that many of my classmates work in municipal building and planning departments (as do I), and the rest came from fire departments. I had gone down to the city on the Sunday night because there was considerable snow in the forecast for the Monday morning. Once I had gotten settled in my hotel room, a minor case of the jitters crept in. This was my first time away from home and away from my husband and kids (aside from repeated trips to the fire college). Needless to say, the urge to be back home in my comfort zone was pretty compelling compared to the unknown of what to expect from the week ahead in my first building-code course. The instructor was a chief building official from a nearby municipality and I had spoken with him prior to the course so I knew there would be some people from Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services in the class. For those of you who aren’t familiar with my story, let’s just say that I have a certain fondness for Mississauga. I was a fire inspector there once upon a time – albeit briefly – and even though the timing wasn’t in my favour for a career at that point, the stars were definitely shining on me while I was there. I assumed the people from Mississauga were likely new inspectors I wouldn’t know, but I found it ironic nonetheless that they’d be in my class. It wouldn’t have surprised me as much if it was a course at the fire college, but I certainly hadn’t expected to know people in a building code course. Our instructor was staying at the same hotel, so I caught a ride with him over to the Ontario Building Officials Association office where the course was being held on the first morning. I happened to be holding the door open for our instructor to carry in his materials and I glanced up to see a familiar face from Mississauga. It was one of the inspectors from the area with whom I had worked in when I was there, and I couldn’t believe my luck. I was already feeling better about the upcoming week. I got settled at my assigned table and watched as the rest of the class filtered in. There were three more students from Mississauga with whom I had worked in the class, and a fourth whose name seemed vaguely familiar to me. He hadn’t arrived yet and I assumed he was a new, younger inspector I hadn’t met before. Lo and behold, when he introduced himself to me, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself – he was new alright, the new division chief of fire prevention. Needless to say, the week turned out to be a very positive experience, both personally and professionally. I met several new acquaintances, but I also met a couple of new friends. Since we were all staying at the same hotel, we had the opportunity to socialize after class. These new friends helped me come out of my shell and have a few good laughs, likely without knowing how much it meant to me. Networking and socializing are two of the great benefits of attending courses like that. Granted, you learn a lot in class, you strengthen your knowledge base and broaden your horizons, but you can also learn a lot after class. Inside and outside of class, it’s the people you’re with who make it all worthwhile – talking with people and learning about what makes them tick, what makes them laugh, the funny stories they share and the life lessons they’ve learned. Great memories with new buddies, dinner out with an amazing friend/editor, a tour of a nearby fire hall with a knowledgeable captain, a couple of harmless pranks and five straight days of building code. What more could a girl want? Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it @georgianbayjen
Feb. 11, 2015, Toronto – Out of respect for the family of Adam Brunt, the Durham College student who died during ice-water rescue training in Hanover on Sunday, I waited a couple of days to say out loud what everyone else is thinking: How many students have to die in Ontario before the training industry is regulated, and simple standards – such as teacher-student ratios, safety briefings, safety plans, safety officers and rapid intervention teams – become mandatory? It seems we’ve had this conversation before – about the acceptable number of deaths of seniors in retirement homes – and we all know the Herculean effort required to convince government to make sprinklers mandatory. But training companies are different; they are not regulated – by any agency or any government department. Not the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM), not the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and, in this case, perhaps not even the Ministry of Labour (which is investigating), given that there was no employer/employee relationship between the training provider and the students. By now you’ve read that the company that offered the program in Hanover, Herschel Rescue Training Systems, is the same one that provided the ice-water rescue course in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010, when firefighter Gary Kendall became trapped under ice for four minutes, and died. The ratio? One instructor to 18 students. Herschel owner/operator Terry Harrison was charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). In that case, the act applied because Harrison had been brought in by the fire department, which was the employer. The judge determined that the fire chief had not technically handed over authority to Harrison that day, and therefore Harrison was not the supervisor, so the charges were dismissed. The town paid a $75,000 fine for failing to ensure the safety of its workers, and that was that. Sunday’s training program in Hanover was different, an open course, advertised on Herschel’s Facebook page – one instructor and 12 students, according to police – offered to individuals like Brunt, who enrolled in the session to add to his resume, hoping it would help him get hired. Which I find interesting. Not a single fire department in Ontario – that I’m aware of –lists ice-water rescue among its minimum requirements for hiring. Conventional wisdom used to be that the more courses a firefighter candidate listed on a resume, the better the chance of employment. And out of that conventional wisdom sprung myriad training companies – many run by career firefighters who work shifts and have the time to devote to a second job – offering courses in everything from ice-water rescue to auto extrication. Particularly now, with standardized firefighter candidate testing in Ontario, those courses aren’t necessary to get hired, and prospective firefighters need not spend money taking them. That message, however, hasn’t filtered down to firefighter candidates, who still clamour to enroll in courses to build their CVs. As one former fire chief told me yesterday, all that mattered when he was hiring was that candidates had NFPA Firefighter I and II, did a great interview, and were the right fit for the department. “If I want them to have ice-water rescue or any other course,” he said, “I’ll put them through the program because I want them to be taught to do it our way.” So, what’s the recourse? Well, if social media is a barometer of public opinion, the outrage over Brunt’s tragic and preventable death should mean immediate changes. But we all know that’s unlikely. Who, or what agency or organization, would champion that change? Well, given that that there have been two training deaths, in similar circumstances, in five years, and given that fire fighting and all its offshoots are inherently dangerous, it follows that realistic training for such pursuits is also inherently dangerous and, like fire fighting, requires regulatory control. Therefore, it logically falls to the agencies that have the ability to enact regulations – the OFMEM, the Ministry of Colleges, Universities and Training, or the Ministry of Labour – to take the proverbial bull by the horns, develop guidelines, and ensure that training for any aspect of fire fighting be done as safely as possible, no matter who provides it. And while organizations such as the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the training officers association, the union (which has the most political clout), and the volunteer firefighters association have no regulatory authority, it would be shameful for them not to advocate for such change. To start, fire-service leaders can petition politicians for an inquest into Brunt’s death. (There were calls for an inquest into Kendall’s death but none was ever held.) Inquests produce recommendations, which, while not binding, can – at the very least – draw mainstream media attention to an issue and may potentially lead to legislation. Another option is to press Ontario’s fire-services advisory committee for OH&S, and the NFPA, to develop guidelines for training similar to those for live fire or technical rescue, and which would be applicable to third-party trainers. There must be other options, and people far smarter than me and more connected to training and rules and standards and guidelines might have better ideas. If you do, speak up. Gary Kendall and Adam Brunt need you to be their champion.
Feb. 3, 2015, Port Severn, Ont. - In my last blog, I talked about my experiences with three of the four mental health issues that I’ve struggled with. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the fourth and most difficult, and seems to run in tandem with depression. Last week’s episode of 16x9 The Bigger Picture on Global Television focussed on the PTSD crisis among Canada’s first responders. I was surprised that it was only a 30-minute segment, but it’s a step in the right direction, and I have great respect for the three men who told their stories. It takes great courage to open up and show that kind of vulnerability. I posted it on Twitter to recommend it to first responders, and received a comment from a fire chief in Alberta. He said he teared up watching it and that we need to get our brothers and sisters the help they need. In his province, PTSD falls under presumptive legislation. By raising awareness, the goal is that it will be in all provinces in the near future. I didn’t tear up while watching the episode, I got chills. The kind of chills you get when something you’ve just heard instantly resonates. As I listened to the RCMP officer, the paramedic, and the firefighter tell their stories, I went back in my mind to the place that they described, my own personal black hole. I had waves of PTSD. I say waves because the first time I experienced symptoms they were caused by fire calls to which I had attended. The second time I experienced symptoms was when my buried childhood memories first started to bubble to the surface, and the third wave occurred last year when I was off work on stress leave. I have been a volunteer firefighter for 18 years, and although I can still recall vivid details of the first fatal accident that I attended, the memories don’t affect me on a cellular level. I’ve been told that most firefighters remember their first fatal so I guess it’s par for the course. I’ve seen my fair share of brutal car accidents over the years but the two that created shock waves in my world were very similar and occurred within two weeks of each other in the heat of June. Both were transport accidents, both involved fire, both had fatalities, and I was first in on both of them. The first of the two was my first fire fatality, and it left an impression on me that will never go away. My partner and I didn’t know the driver was still in the vehicle until after the fire was knocked down and the victim was pointed out to us. The image again returns to my mind as I write these words. The second call involved a transport and a car, and another victim. This time, it was the smell that got me. I didn’t realize what the smell was until someone mentioned it. I was almost sick right then and there. Within a day or two, the flashbacks started. I kept picturing the victims of both calls, but most disturbing was of the second call. My mind insisted on filling in the details of how the accident occurred, and how the victim died. I began to have trouble sleeping and had no appetite. I felt fragile. I remember driving up the highway one day and before we even got near to where the accident had occurred, I began hyperventilating. Other times, I would glance at a passing car and images of broken bodies and smashed cars would fill my mind. I didn’t know then that it was PTSD; I just knew I was in trouble. That was roughly 13 years ago. When I was off work in 2013, I was at my lowest. Years of suppressed memories, emotions and negative experiences caught up with me and I was forced to sit on the sidelines while I got myself sorted out and sought out the help I needed. While at home one day I was watching a movie with a well-known actor whose movies I typically enjoy. In this particular movie, there was an unexpected traumatic scene that caught me completely off guard and affected me to the core. I had never personally experienced the abuse that occurred in the movie, but it hit a nerve with me and within hours, the flashbacks started. When I closed my eyes to go to sleep, the scene flashed in my mind and rattled me, and it continued for days. I finally told my husband about it saying, “It’s like certain things get right into my head and I can’t prevent them from affecting me on an emotional level.” Normal people shrug things off, but I didn’t seem to have that ability. The flashbacks are devastating because they’re not merely a static picture in your mind, they are images that move, that have a life of their own. And there are emotions tied to those images that you feel deeply within in your body. They are a triple threat with the power to bring the strongest man or woman to their knees with a fear like no other. There are other symptoms of PTSD, but in my experience the flashbacks are most disturbing because you have no control over them; this causes feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and depression tightens its grip. In my darkest moment, I suddenly understood the concept of suicide. I said to my husband, “I know why people chose to end their lives.” He looked concerned, and waited for me to continue. “It’s the never-ending torment, the emptiness, the inner turmoil that no one understands; no matter how much they love you, they can’t know how it feels unless they’ve gone through it themselves.” I was very clear that I wasn’t going to go that route because I knew that no matter how bad it was for me, I would not leave my two daughters without their momma. That was the thread that I held on to; my love for them was what pulled me through. My lifeline – my girls and my husband. PTSD is a battle for your sanity. Asking for help when you’re a first responder – whose purpose is to help others – is a battle from within. Been there. Done that. Survived it. Here to help. Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it @georgianbayjen
Feb. 2, 2015, Beamsville, Ont. - Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been in the news recently. According to a Global News story, we have lost four first responders to suicide since Jan. 1 – this makes 34 first responders in Canada who have killed themselves since the end of April. Global News also reports that a Michigan study indicates that 24 per cent of first responders suffer from PTSD; that is a statistic to which you don’t want to belong. Life is a journey that often leads us to unexpected places, but suicide is not something most of us consider. Life is also an adventure with a penchant for hurling challenges in our paths. The lives of first responders can be filled with challenges and, at times, their attempts to lead meaningful lives appear to be in vain; but trust me, that’s not the case. First responders are a special breed; they rise to a challenge and are not usually afraid of the unknown. First responders are no strangers to going above and beyond to get the job done – to fight fires and save lives. Five years ago I gave a talk titled “An attitude of gratitude” to a men’s breakfast group in the Niagara Region in Southern Ontario. I strongly believe that gratitude can turn what one has into enough – not gratitude for the fire or the victim, but gratitude that you can and do help those in their time of need; gratitude that you have survived; that you have a stable, rewarding, and noble, career – the best job in the world. Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor, believed that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure as Sigmund Freud believed, or a quest for power as Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Here are three possible sources of meaning that you might find interesting: Work (doing something worthwhile) Love (caring for another) Courage in difficult times Do any of these ring a bell? They should, for as first responders you fulfill all three of these sources of meaning during an average response. There are a lot of self-help books that speak of happiness, however, many of these books deal only with superficial issues; they lay out systems on how to get rich quick or how to find ultimate happiness. Advertising constantly tells us how much we are lacking in our lives. We appear to be living in chronic inadequacy. But as humans, we need more than just systems or stuff; these cannot make us happy. Happiness is up to each one of us. I believe that people’s happiness depends on the quality of their thoughts. As a society we are bombarded with sound bites, led to believe that we can find whatever we need just by clicking on Google or Bing or whatever. But life goes deeper and we owe it to ourselves to look beyond the surface. So the next time your disturbing memories or feelings try to take control, pause for a few moments to check in with yourself. Here are a few steps from The PTSD Workbook, from authors Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula, to help you with this check in. If possible, stop whatever you are doing Sit quietly for a short period Turn your attention inward and ask your body how it feels Notice if you feel any tension anywhere in your body; e.g. shoulders, stomach, jaw or back Notice if you are holding your breath Notice if you are doing anything that suggests tension; e.g. biting your nails, picking at your skin Now notice any emotions you feel, if you are able to recognize them; e.g. fearful, sad, angry, lonely Notice if you have racing thoughts or if you are able to stay focused If you notice any of the above reactions, take some time, and take a few deep, calming breaths. Stay safe. Bruce Lacillade is retired from the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario, where he spent 10 years on the floor as a firefighter and the next 15 years as an inspector in fire prevention. He’s also a U.S. Navy veteran and the chaplain for the American Legion in Ontario and the United Council of Veterans (Hamilton and area). Bruce helps first responders, military personnel, veterans, and their families deal with what he calls moral injuries, or internal conflicts. Contact Bruce at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Jan. 29, 2015, Port Severn, Ont. - Yesterday was Bell’s Let’s Talk day and today I’ve got something to talk about: living with depression, anxiety and PTSD, and – the icing on the cake – a social anxiety disorder, as if the first three weren’t enough. In January of last year I was two months into a four-month leave from work. I had been evaluated by my family doctor, a therapist, a psych nurse, and a psychiatrist, and diagnosed with the above four mental-health issues. Despite my initial refusal of anti-depressants, (I didn’t want to be one of those people) I eventually conceded when I realized that these challenges weren’t something I could simply will myself to get over. With the proper treatment, which, for me, was the combination of the medication and regular visits with a therapist who specialized in trauma counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy, I am happy to report that I am healthy (mentally, emotionally, and physically, aside from an extra pound or two around the saddle-bag area) and off the medication completely. And I’ve done it in less than a year. The psychiatrist had told me that I may need to be on the medication for anywhere from two years to the rest of my life. I didn’t like hearing that and I’m glad that I was able to prove her wrong. My problems originated with childhood trauma that occurred when I was about 10 years old, and I never told anyone. I suppressed the memories and emotions deeply enough that I didn’t think it was an issue, but I also never felt secure or confident in myself because of those early experiences. It’s kind of like having a program running in the background on your computer that you don’t realize is there, and it causes things to be a little sketchy and results in you misinterpreting things, such as your most important life experiences. I was under some stress at work, quite likely nothing out of the ordinary for a well-adjusted individual, but well adjusted, I wasn’t. I felt like I could barely keep my head above water, day in and day out. I began to have trouble sleeping, I withdrew (heck I was in downright hermit mode), I had trouble focusing at work, I couldn’t concentrate, I was on edge all of the time, couldn’t relax, and thought everyone saw me as a failure. I’m not sure how obvious it was to my coworkers that I was about to shatter, but I’m sure if people could tell I was stressed, they had no idea how deeply fractured I truly was. I didn’t even know. Along with the time off work, I had to take a leave from the fire department. It made sense. I mean, who needs a could-possibly-shatter-at-any-moment firefighter trying to help other people? How much of a calming effect would I have on a patient if I’m about to have a meltdown and suddenly put the oxygen on myself? Or if I’m trying to help extricate someone and suddenly decide, like Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in Top Gun, “It’s no good. Can’t do it. I’m buggin’ out and going home.” Sounds like scenes from a comedy, and I can poke fun at myself now, but only because I’ve been through it. The truth is, mental health is serious stuff. Depression is the absence of feeling a connection to anything that matters in your life. My husband once asked me, “What’s wrong, what’s worrying you?” and I replied, “That’s just it, you don’t get it, it’s not any one thing that’s bothering me, it’s everything. Everything feels wrong. Nothing feels right.” I also told him that it’s not something that people can ever understand if they haven’t gone through it themselves. No matter how much your loved ones love you, the seemingly never-ending torment and inner turmoil is incomprehensible to them. My social anxiety had me avoiding any and all social gatherings, whether formal or informal. It was all I could do to go to the fire hall on training nights before I had gone on leave – and those were people I knew well and was comfortable being around. It was just such an overwhelming feeling of wanting to implode and disappear that the only relief was to stay home and avoid being social. We missed a lot of Christmas parties that year. I don’t know what excuse my husband gave as he declined invitation after invitation, but he seemed to understand that it simply was not something I could deal with at the time and didn’t push it. Perhaps it was my head spinning around and the flames shooting out of my nostrils that made him decide not to push the issue. The general anxiety was always triggered by one thing – my thoughts. Trust me, anxiety attacks are real and create serious physiological reactions in the body, which just increase the whole panic experience. I had shortness of breath, weakness, restlessness and panic, all caused by negative, fearful thoughts. I was at home one day doing Pilates and thinking about returning to work and had some stressful thoughts. Before I knew it, I was unable to follow a routine that I’d done several times. I got angry at myself, and then at the Pilates instructor on the DVD, as if she had changed the routine. Then it snowballed into not only being unable to concentrate on the Pilates, I couldn’t focus on anything. I was almost hyperventilating and in tears. I ended up calling a friend, who talked me down because he has been through it and knew what to say. It was a big wake-up call for me because the incident was a clear example of how our thoughts affect our emotions and our bodies. There was no one else here and no other reason for the anxiety attack to happen. The only cause was the negative and fearful thoughts I was having at the time, because quite honestly, I was worried about returning to work – and it was more than a month away at the time. Powerful lesson to learn. However, for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, the ability to reason and make sound judgements in the midst of an attack is simply not available. If you take anything away from this blog, let it be that: our brains do not function the way a “healthy” brain functions during an anxiety attack, or when suffering with depression. Which is why there is such a stigma surrounding mental health issues. It is not a “just-suck-it-up” thing. Facing your mental-health issues, whatever the demons in your closet, takes one heck of a lot of courage and strength. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone and everyone who is or has battled mental-health issues, because fighting for your sanity is a brutal battle to have to do through. And, for most of us, all of this is always in the back of our minds even after we’ve “recovered,” because if we don’t take care of ourselves, we will fall off that wagon for sure. People just don’t understand what the afflicted go through, and that’s why I’m talking about it now – to help bring awareness and understanding to the issue because I have been there and I know exactly how it feels. I’m also in a much better place now – I’ve been back to work and the fire department since last March, and I’ve been doing a second job covering for a colleague since November. If I can go from where I was to where I am now, then there's hope for others too. I want to help others because the worst feeling in the world is thinking that you’re alone and no one understands. But I do. Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. Email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow her on Twitter at @georgianbayjen
Jan. 28, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. - As a firefighter, I am called to the worst moments in people’s lives. From fires and car accidents to drug overdoses and suicides, it’s my job to mitigate the damage, reduce the losses and save lives. If you’re a first responder of any kind your job description isn’t much different and neither are the stresses that come from these demands. The physical stresses are obvious – run, lift, carry, stairclimb, etc. – but what about the other sources of stress? Are they as obvious? Are you even aware that you’re absorbing stress in other ways? I’m going to assume (I know it’s a risk, but it’s what we do) that if you’re reading this, it’s because you are aware or want more awareness about your health. So let’s look at stress for a moment. Stress itself isn’t a terrible thing. In fact, every time we lift weights we stress the muscles and if we’re properly nourished, they respond by rebuilding and becoming stronger. The concept of vaccines is similar. A controlled dose of stress allows our bodies to adapt and overcome. So what happens when we experience mental or emotional stress? Is it possible to become stronger in the same way? Ask yourself “Is it a controlled dose?” Clearly control and emergency scenes are at opposite ends of the spectrum so it becomes a matter of perspective and perception. How we perceive our roles and, more importantly, our effectiveness in our roles directly affects the dose of stress. If we view our involvement as having had a positive impact, then the experience will be stored in our mental hard drives and fit neatly away for recall if needed at another scene (a small, controllable dose that makes us stronger). If, however, we feel the outcome of the incident was not impacted by our actions in a way we expected or wanted, the dose of stress can crush us. So how do we prevent that from happening? Awareness. Awareness of what our operational limits are: of course we need to be good at what we do but we also need to understand that even when we do everything right, the outcome is sometimes decided before our arrival. It sounds simple (and it is), but give it some thought the next time a call stays with you. Awareness of your sympathetic response: learn to recover from fight or flight. Quick decisions are required to mitigate emergencies. We make better decisions when not in fight-or-flight mode. More on that in another blog. Awareness of your value: just by being at the scene you are providing the patients with a feeling that someone cares. Don’t underestimate your impact. Awareness of the big picture: constantly adapt your perspective gathering in the larger picture and understanding as much of the puzzle as possible. If your mind is searching for answers it’s impossible to control the dose through perspective. Awareness that you took the job to help people and that means you care! Don’t ever be sorry for caring. Don’t ever feel ashamed for caring. Sometimes you will need help to cope with the levels of stress. Ask for it, because you are surrounded by people just like you – people who CARE!Rob Martin is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario. He is a passionate advocate for healthy living and encourages a balanced approach where functional movement, nutrition, quiet time and fun are the fundamental building blocks for staying fit for duty. Rob is a master trainer with the Ontario Fire College, training firefighters in fire-ground survival techniques, and has attained the disaster canine search team qualification through FEMA. Rob has been trained in critical-incident stress debriefings, defusings and peer-to-peer support, and has served for more than a decade on a critical-incident stress-management team. Following the research chain for mental health led Rob to yoga, where the benefits were immediately obvious. After a couple of years of a personal practice, Rob studied to become a registered yoga teacher. Contact Rob at   This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101  
Jan. 28, 2015, Beamsville, Ont. - In recent blogs I introduced the reality of post-traumatic and cumulative stress, introduced a few symptoms and advised that PTSD is now beginning to be recognized as a work-related injury. Today, I address the need for you to accept that you may be troubled by some of the calls to which you have responded. After all, behind all your training and underneath your bunker gear, you are human. Some calls are silly and some are deadly serious. I remember responding to a “pedestrian-struck” call only to discover the pedestrian was never struck by a vehicle but that the he was out for a walk, got tired, and laid down on the grass next to the street for a rest! However, I also remember responding to a house fire that turned out to also be a suicide; I discovered the body with the shotgun beside it while advancing a hoseline into the kitchen. These examples show two extremes of a first responder’s average shift. One never knows what the next call will be, but you do know that you will respond and whether silly or serious, it will be most likely outside what civilians consider normal. Although as first responders you are well trained and well equipped (not to mention good looking!), you can’t control everything; some things you just can’t fix. This can cause a certain amount of anxiety and maybe even a sense of being powerless, which you may also not be able to control at first. However, you do have the power to turn this perceived weakness into strength. You may have distressing memories, and maybe even bad dreams; you may be irritable or frustrated. These could be signs of work-related stress. Please realize that you can overcome these. First, you must recognize and accept that something is bothering you. Next, reflect on what that something is, and then share your concerns with someone you trust; this will go a long way toward relieving the stress these distressing memories can cause. Don’t hold in your distressing memories and feelings. If you don’t vent, these distressing memories will cause a backdraft in your head. This is the point at which emotional intelligence comes into play. Beyond technical skills and competence, first responders also need a certain amount of emotional intelligence, which brings with it self-awareness, adaptability and self-control. All responders need to be aware of their feelings, and develop the ability to correctly perceive the feelings of others, and act effectively on these perceptions. We have come to a new year, which for me brings new hope for improvement. Hope is a confident expectation that a desire will be fulfilled. Don’t make silly or grandiose resolutions that you know you won’t keep but make real-life changes. I realize I have said this before but we need to eat well (watch the caffeine and alcohol), exercise, get plenty of rest, breathe, and, if it suits you, get in touch with your spiritual side. It doesn’t matter if you have stumbled and fallen many times before, you can still get up and move forward just as surely as if you’ve never fallen. Stay safe. Bruce Lacillade is retired from the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario, where he spent 10 years on the floor as a firefighter and the next 15 years as an inspector in fire prevention. He’s also a U.S. Navy veteran and the chaplain for the American Legion in Ontario and the United Council of Veterans (Hamilton and area). Bruce helps first responders, military personnel, veterans, and their families deal with what he calls moral injuries, or internal conflicts. Contact Bruce at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Jan. 20, 2015, Winnipeg - I know a few cops and, in general, I will always defend my opinion that cops are kind of cliquish, even more so than us. They’re a tight bunch, and rarely let anyone into their inner sanctuary, preferring to keep their blue brotherhood under guarded care. I get it, because I understand the job. Police are rarely celebrated when they arrive on scene. Usually, 50 per cent of the folks on scene are the problem, and, in some cases, everyone is. When the fire truck shows up, we’re usually greeted with some kind of statement of support, sincerity, and thankfulness. Police not so much. Now police officers get a bad rap because they enforce the law; when we break it, we’re obviously in the right, and the officer is out to lunch. Sound familiar? That’s a stupid law. I barely touched the guy. I only had seven beers and I’m fine! Imagine going to work when everyone and their cousin believe you to be doing a crappy job, for the most part, all of the time. Imagine getting spit on, or having children speak to you disrespectfully because they were raised to mistrust you. As firefighters, we wear the negative stuff and chew on it for a while, swallow it down deep and try to bury it. We’ve all seen stuff; stuff that we didn’t talk about at our spouses’ Christmas parties last month. We seem to understand and can relate to how police deal with the pain in their own souls that can start to wear on you. The real problem I have been dealing with lately is the lack of understanding, the hatred, the ignorance of what is really happening. Police deal with saving souls, and while firefighters do as well, I would gladly admit that firefighters deal with the misfortunes of life inflicted on folks from a perspective of non-culpability. A lot of the time, when we arrive, it is no ones fault. Fault creates blame, blame creates anger, and anger fuels the demons inside of us. When choices are made by people who are desperate, have lost hope, and have sunken to a depth at which point, in their own minds, committing a crime is the way out, you’ve now arrived at evil. And cops are in the business of dealing with evil like nobody’s business. Firefighters deal with evil but not anywhere near as much as those sworn to protect us from it. Society is changing before me; statistics may support the theories of a declining crime rate, but I believe the people that reach evil are in large parts more desperate, determined, and internally conflicted with rage and hatred toward us. We can argue until the cows come home about the differences between cops and firefighters; we can have our jokes, good-natured ribbings, and laughs at each other expense. But in the end, I want every police officer to know from coast to coast that I get it, I understand you, and I support you in your efforts to protect my family and the citizens in your care. I’m just so damn tired of cops getting shot, and I wanted to say thank you, and never give up. *Carousel photo from Flickr by Robert TaylorJay Shaw is a firefighter and primary-care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg. Along with multiple fire and emergency services courses and certificates, Jay holds a master's degree in disaster and Emergency management from Royal Roads University and is an independent education and training consultant focusing on leadership, management, emergency preparedness and communication skills. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter @firecollege
Jan. 20, 2015, Port Severn, Ont. - For those who love to snowmobile, my township is a mecca for it. I myself am an avid sledder who lives for the weekends when my husband, two daughters and I can take off for the day with friends. On the weekend, we were about 20 minutes away from home doing some running around when the call came across the pager for a snowmobile accident. I don’t think we’ve ever left Walmart that fast before. Due to our location, we were unable to hear the entire page so I sent a text message to another firefighter for more details. He called me right away and advised that the accident involved a two-year-old. He also let me know he wouldn’t be responding as he was at the hospital visiting his wife (the same woman that I’d written about in an earlier blog). I then sent a text to another firefighter that I thought would be responding, to let him know that we were 20 minutes out. We often don’t have sufficient manpower on the weekends and so many of us keep in touch via text messages when a call comes in; especially when the three of us that live closest to the hall were all out of town at the time. This makes me think of the new dispatch systems that are available for volunteer departments that show who is responding and from where via text or email, and how beneficial that system would have been that day. However, you work with what you’ve got and I was able to let someone at the hall know that we were on our way. My husband Earl and I then started talking logistics. Our dispatch was trying to arrange transportation out to the call, but was having no luck with the local marinas after contacting three of them. Earl and I discussed whether we should go home and get our sleds, or go straight to the hall. We listened to the radio transmissions while en route and heard that the Ontario provincial police were responding on sleds with a 20-minute ETA so we knew there were at least two sleds available. We then heard our district chief radio that the rescue truck was out of service and they were responding the pumper with three. The decision was made to go straight to the hall and my husband was able to get the rescue truck running. The rescue boggen was loaded into the back and we responded with three, while I shouted at my two daughters to close the bay door as we left them at the fire hall. We dropped our captain at his house to grab his sled in case another one was needed, and continued to the call. When we arrived at the staging area, a crew of three firefighters had already responded to the scene and the police officers were waiting to take Earl and I out. Our captain, who is a paramedic, arrived at the same time on his own sled and followed us out to the call.The patient had lost control of his brand-new sled and rolled it. He was complaining of back and shoulder pain and was clearly in agony. He was collared, boarded and loaded into a Stokes basket in the rescue boggan for the long, slow ride back to the staging area and a waiting ambulance. One of the firefighters rode with him in the boggan and said that the poor guy howled in pain most of the way back. It was by no means a gentle ride over the snow, but there was no other way to transport him. It did, however, get us talking about ways to make it a smoother ride for the next unfortunate person. We’re now looking at putting foam in the bottom of our three rescue boggans to provide a bit of a smoother ride. There is something to be learned from every call; ways to do things better, easier, more efficiently or more effectively. But in the end, it’s all about teamwork. And the two-year-old? We have no idea what that was all about but were all relieved to find out that there wasn’t one involved. Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. Email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow her on Twitter at @georgianbayjen
There is a constant and almost daily injection of new technology into our lives, homes and workplaces. But the gradual pace at which the latest-and-greatest technology works its way into the fire service is often frustratingly slow.
As a professional in the fire service, you make crucial decisions every day that balance need with available resources. How should you approach these decisions, and how can you justify the decisions you make?
If you do not have your health, what do you have? In the November issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, I raised the issue of work-related mental illness in the fire and emergency services. Your responses have been overwhelming. It seems I touched a nerve – I think in a good way – for many. The next step is learning how, as fire-service leaders, we can take action to help ourselves and our colleagues who are suffering or lost.
"You need to lose 25 pounds.” Those were words I knew were coming but I sure did not want to hear them. I had to have surgery (that’s another column) and those were the doctor’s instructions to me. I quietly took them in, and I think the doctor could sense my disappointment; the disappointment was internal for letting myself get to that point. The doctor then took me down the hall and introduced me to a nutritionist.
At approximately 07:25 on Wednesday, Dec. 31, the homeowner of a farm just outside the community of Sunderland, Ont., was leaving for work when she discovered smoke coming from the barn. At 07:28, the home owner’s phone call was received at the Oshawa Fire Communications Centre.
British Columbia recently took a bold and, I believe, positive step by moving away from the familiar NFPA 1001 training standard for structural firefighters in favour of a new tiered model.
I met British Columbia Fire Commissioner Gordon Anderson in Victoria in June as he was getting ready to talk to chiefs about the province’s new minimum standard for structural firefighter training.
Ice-melting products work well to keep roads safe during the winter, but, as fire-department repair mechanics will tell you, these products can wreak havoc in the truck bay.
Feb. 25, 2015 – Manufacturer Kochek has introduced a specialty suction cup and 90-degree discharge elbow to the market that features a stationary flange, full-time swivel and locking knob. Engineered for use on New York Fire Department fireboats, the stainless-steel product is suited for applications such as front suction in fire pumpers, fixed assemblies in marinas or shipyards, oil rig platforms, and refinery fire protection inlet manifolds. Learn more at www.kochek.com
Feb. 20, 2015 – Ventry Solutions has introduced a portable, two-headed, LED scene-light system that dramatically improves scene safety by rapidly lighting an entire area. Available on an extra-tall telescoping pole, the LENTRY lights are powered by a fuel-efficient generator that provides eight to 10 hours of light per tank. The two-headed lights provide 56,000 lumens for exceptional brightness, and use only 660 watts. Each head pivots 180-degrees forward and back. Learn more at http://www.ventry.com/
Feb. 20, 2015 – Connecticut-based Kochek Company has launches a new line of big water 15-centimetre (six-inch) strainers ideal for maximum flow applications in fire fighting and industrial fire-protection markets. The compact, light-weight aluminum strainers are durable to withstand harsh weather conditions, and are available in threaded, storz and camlock connections. Learn more at http://www.kochek.com/FireEquipment.aspx?uid=381-155
It’s a well-known fact that exercise makes us happier. But the feeling, at times, is short lived if you wake up so sore you have to peel yourself out of bed. This unfortunate phenomenon is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Over the years I have written quite a few columns on leadership styles and the benefits of each style. One style that I have always endorsed and tried to embrace is that of servant leadership.
Teaching in the classroom is necessary for passing on knowledge to firefighters. But chances are that some of your firefighters grumble as they enter the room and cringe at the thought of reliving the educational nightmares of their youth, and for good reason.
There are a lot of firefighter leaders, writers and administrators who talk about leadership versus management, the differences between them, and how each is applied to situations, problems, or issues. As a consultant who specifically assesses, creates programming and instructs on the tenants of these topics, I find it very amusing that the predominant term used by managers in the private industry in which I consult, is in fact, fire fighting or putting out fires. These terms are used to describe dealing with problems that pop up, or people or things that seem to become difficult. You’ve probably heard these terms in the context of business, as emergent issues that always put a wrench in your plans and seem to come out of nowhere and start fires. These fires, if left unattended, seem to grow in these organizations until they consume morale and organizational culture, much the same way a structure fire consumes oxygen. Managers tell me how they fight the fires with aggressive policies and manage the issue from a best-case scenario point of view, sometimes even taking a chance or having to move quickly on an issue to stop it from spreading. Just imagine an organization lacking in oxygen – a slow, dying, stale business with no fresh ideas goes under, and you can almost bet cash money that someone was trying to fight a fire. Fire fighting is extremely dangerous, has unforeseen risks and is an aggressive venture to undertake at the best of times. So why do we do it? Because there may be something to save. But when it comes to business and/or fire fighting, our strategies have evolved to the point at which even firefighters question why we would do something so aggressive.Fighting or putting out fires are horrible terms and mindsets for managers, leaders, and supervisors in any industry,– including the fire service – when it comes to dealing with people and managing resources. For goodness sake, the term fire fighting has the word fight in it. Why would you want to correlate any work activity to the term fight? The new fire officer, fire chief and firefighter all learn the same conceptual ideas now that we know that interpersonal skills and communication skills are paramount to the success of the department, in the halls and on the fire ground. In fact, unless something is happening that is of imminent danger to my life, there is really never a time to yell, ever. Every organizational behavior, conflict resolution, and leadership book or course confirms this.And while we can argue until our face pieces suck in and were out of air, I can tell you I will never be convinced that managing people is the best way to create a successful department. Leaders lead people, and manage policy, directives and process. Managers manage people through a lens of policy, directives and process. The difference is that the leader is out in front with fire-prevention strategies and the manager is chasing fire with a small five-pound extinguisher. There is a notable difference in the approach, wouldn’t you agree? When my lovely wife was promoted to a management position at the hospital and struggled with the new buddy-to-boss paradigm, I suggested she lead the team from a perspective of collaboration, taking in feedback and doing a lot of listening from all of her new stakeholders. Once a deep understanding of the issues was accomplished, she was able to use feedback and suggestions to help draft new policy, and she gave all the credit to her staff for coming up with the ideas. A manager might have first tried to assume what the problem was and direct the fix with no input for others. While in some cases this would be a normal strategy and a proper course of action, rarely does this approach work as well as leading your team to help draw the right conclusions on their own. One solution builds value in the team and eventually prevents similar issues from popping up as stakeholders learn the value of leading forward to find the solution, while the later may solve the problem, but offers no long- term strategy for stopping the issue from happening again; hence the comparison of fire fighting rather than fire prevention. This strategy has worked for me in the boardroom, and the fire officers I trust and respect who use this method seem to have crews and followers who would bust through brick walls for them as well. Funny how building value in people, showing them respect and guiding them to follow policies and procedures that are collaborative in nature gets better results.An ounce of prevention or a five-pound pound pressurized can of cure? You decide.Jay Shaw is a primary-care paramedic and firefighter with the City of Winnipeg. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @firecollege
Scottish rugby player Nelson Henderson said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” This is what leaving a legacy is all about, and since our retirements from the fire-service, we truly understand the importance of leaving a leadership legacy upon which others can build.  For fire-service leaders, legacy is all about planting leadership seeds within departments so that after the leaders have moved on, the seeds continue to grow. Remember, a leader’s legacy is not just what he or she did while in the fire department; it’s also what is left behind for others to build upon. Leadership is all about growing other leaders.  Imagine how gratifying it is for leaders to look back five or 10 years after leaving a fire department to see how their leadership direction took the department to new levels of success. To us, this is the true legacy of a fire chief. One of the key challenges to leaving a solid foundation to build up is how to ensure that all staff members are not only trained and ready to do their jobs, but are also prepared for future leadership positions. How does a leader know who to help grow and prepare for the future? The simplest and probably the best answer is that leaders need to teach, mentor and prepare everyone to meet the future; by doing so, the best will rise to the top and demonstrate that they are able to meet future challenges.There are five steps that may help fire-service leaders prepare future leaders. Step 1: lay out the plan. No matter what the project is, there must be a plan in place for it to be successful; building leadership capacity is no different. We all know that leadership is more than time served. The leaders of tomorrow require education and qualifications that focus on people; soft skills such as building effective teams and mentoring and coaching sell the department’s vision and make firefighters feel as if they are a part of a team. So ask yourself: what is the plan? What do you want to accomplish and in what timespan? Step 2: identify the existing leadership capacity. Every department has leadership and every department has leadership gaps. Preparing for the future means the fire chief and firefighters must communicate openly about the leadership plans for the department. Working collaboratively, which includes open and timely communication, gives everyone a connection with the plan and will help to inspire members to see it to fruition. Remember, a leader’s legacy cannot continue if it completely depends on his or her presence. Guiding the team and allowing team members to take the reins is part of building the momentum. Step 3: be the team. During any phase of any plan, a leader must ensure all team members know and understand that they are important. It is critical to know the difference between being a part of a team and being the team. Success occurs only if firefighters feel they are part of the team that is building the future of the fire department. One person cannot do everything, but many hands lighten the load and more efficiently complete goals and objectives. Step 4: celebrate successes. Take the time to celebrate accomplishments. We all make an effort to acknowledge when our kids win a ribbon or get an A on a test, but leaders sometimes forget that their staff need to hear that the department has successfully met a goal or worked through a challenge. So take the time to celebrate successful course completions because without celebrating the successes, it’s too easy to feel part of cold-hearted organization. Step 5: empower others. When it comes to leadership, it is OK to empower others to grow and explore how they can fit into leadership roles. Leaders may be surprised what their staff can do if they know they are supported. Lee Iacocca said, “If you really believe in what you are doing, you’ve got to persevere even when you run into obstacles.” When you are building your team and looking to the future to predict what kind of legacy you will leave as a fire chief or chief officer, know that there will be many obstacles and many setbacks that will test you and frustrate you. Persevere and believe in yourself and your team.To us, leaving a legacy is one of the greatest things fire-service leaders can do. Leaving a legacy demonstrates to everyone that the leader was invested in the department. For leaders, a legacy is about what’s in it for the organization, the communities they service and, most importantly, their staff.Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Contact Les at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and Lyle at
Fire-service leaders have many responsibilities; developing talent in the fire hall is a responsibility that chiefs should take seriously given that one day all chief officers will move on to retirement or other opportunities. Leaving a solid foundation of internal talent is paramount to the stability and growth of the organization. The level of talent demonstrated within the fire station is a good indication of the organization’s leadership. When firefighter talent appears absent or is lacking, it’s a strong indication that the leadership has either stalled out or, in some cases, is unable to keep up with the growth of the department. In cases such as these, the fire chief and senior officers need to regroup and change things.There are various views on the subject of talent development, but one thing is certain: every fire department has talent, and it must be developed, otherwise the future looks grim and the community loses respect for the department.Firefighter talent is a commodity that increases in value as it develops. This commodity improves the fire department, enhances public safety, increases firefighter professionalism and boosts morale, which is why talent development must be the focus of all fire-service leaders, regardless of the size of the department. Many readers might believe that, by default, it is the fire chief’s responsibility to build department talent; we agree to a point, but only to a point. Yes, it is the responsibility of the fire chief to acquire the resources to develop firefighter talent, and this is typically accomplished at budget time by presenting a carefully laid-out plan that identifies the short-, medium- and long-range goals for talent development. But, for the most part, this is where the chief’s job ends. Now it’s time for the real talent-builders to roll up their sleeves and do what is needed. In our opinion, the real talent-builders are the frontline officers. Let us explain.Who is in the best position to know the skills, competencies, personalities and experiences of firefighters? The frontline supervisors. And who is in the best position to lead by example and set the bar high for talent development? The frontline supervisors. Frontline officers have more face time with the firefighters and therefore they are in a better position to understand individual strengths and weaknesses. Frontline officers can determine ways to best use firefighters’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses, which is, ultimately, building talent. Frontline officers are also in the best position to mentor and coach firefighters and to encourage them when they get stuck in a rut. Building talent requires frontline supervisors to understand the importance of firefighter talent; they must lead by example and set the bar high for not only firefighters, but also for themselves. In other words, the frontline supervisors must continually take steps to better themselves. To lead by example, these officers must be the example; when it comes to training and education, frontline officers should be the first to sign up for the course. We cannot expect others to buy into talent development if the frontline supervisor doesn’t buy into it. Building talent rests on the shoulders of every firefighter in the department; it’s a team effort. Who determines firefighters’ attitude toward building their own talent? You guessed it: the firefighters. Firefighters must value talent development and be active supporters of meeting department and/or industry standards. Firefighters may need to juggle their vacation periods to accommodate training, attend seminars on a weekend, or spend time doing homework in order to build their own talent. They need to have some investment in the game.Building department talent can be a challenge as firefighters likely have their own opinions regarding talent-building priorities. Regardless of what comes first or what comes second, successful leaders realize it takes the combined effort of every person in the department to develop this precious commodity. Basketball star Michael Jordan summarized this team effort quite nicely: “There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”It isn’t a matter of wanting to build department talent; rather, it is a matter of making it happen. We recommend you take steps to make it happen sooner rather than later.Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Contact Les at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and Lyle at
We can’t help but reflect on our careers, the adventures we have enjoyed and how we have been privileged to serve our communities.
Public safety is paramount in our business. Indeed, public safety is not just for the public, it also includes safety for those who provide emergency services to the public.
It is absolutely amazing that we are in our fourth year of writing these joint columns for Fire Fighting in Canada.
You lead as you are. I learned this adage from a dear friend and mentor of mine – retired Cambridge, Ont., fire chief Terry Allen.
Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King sat down with Volunteer Vision columnists Tom DeSorcy, the fire chief in Hope, B.C., and Vince MacKenzie, the chief in Grand Fall-Windsor, N.L., to get a coast-to-coast perspective on the Canadian fire service.
We have had the pleasure of writing leadership columns for Fire Fighting in Canada since 2010.
Welcome to the first edition of what we hope will be a long and prosperous partnership between the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and Annex Business Media/Fire Fighting in Canada. 
Three Breast Friends put one foot in front of the other and set off on an adventure they never expected.
How do we help every member of the fire service educate the public about fire safety?
Earlier this year, the National Geographic channel aired a six-part documentary, titled Inside Combat Rescue.
Being in the fire service seems to imply to others that we are tough and armour plated.
Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek outlined to fire chiefs on Tuesday the details of proposed changes to the Ontario Fire Code that focus on fire prevention in homes for seniors and some other vulnerable Ontarians. See story below. Photo by Laura King
It’s a little-known fact that on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire there was another huge fire the United States: a fire burned so out of control in Peshtigo, Wis., on Oct. 8, 1871, that 2,500 people died
A strategic partnership has emerged in British Columbia with the intent to reduce fire injuries and fatalities among at-risk populations.
As I wrote this in late November, all thoughts were on the approaching Christmas season and fire departments were focused on holiday safety.
This past summer I watched more of the Olympics than I ever have before.
The number of fires and break-ins in an at-risk neighbourhood in Surrey, B.C., dropped significantly after a one-day education and safety blitz conducted by firefighters and RCMP officers.
I’ve been intrigued by the story of Hélène Campbell, a double-lung transplant recipient. Campbell, suffering idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, made headlines after appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show a few months ago.
I’ve been writing for this publication for more than a year now and my focus has been to get firefighters
An apparatus driver helps to set the tone of a rescue or fire-ground operation. How the driver positions the apparatus at a scene is crucial to a successful fire-ground operation or motor-vehicle rescue.
British Columbia has changed its minimum standards of training required for fire-services personnel. In September, the Office of the Fire Commissioner implemented the Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook. (You can download the 22-page playbook at www.embc.gov.bc.ca/ofc)
Firefighters sometimes deal with emergencies involving unpredictable and possibly dangerous participants. This is especially true for members of rural departments who are more likely than their urban counterparts to respond to calls involving farm animals. These incidents can test both the skills and the wit of even veteran firefighters.
Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS) was the first department in Ontario to have all its firefighters certified to the province’s firefighter curriculum after the program was introduced in 1993. Now that Ontario has transitioned to NFPA professional qualifications, Vaughan has become the first career department in which all firefighters are certified in NFPA 1006 core competencies for technical rescue – all 300 of them.
With advancements in automobile-safety technology over the last 10 to 15 years, steady progress has been made in the development of techniques to safely remove passengers from motor-vehicle collisions. Today, most emergency response personnel use established methods of extrication, such as dash lifts, side-outs and roof removals.
What are you when you put your uniform on? Are you a fire officer, a firefighter or do you even contemplate how many different hats you wear in one shift? What if I told you that you are salesman, a communications officer, and a customer-service clerk all wrapped up in a fire helmet of whichever colour you just happen to wear? Several years ago I wrote a paper for a fire-prevention management course I was taking at the Justice Institute of BC; Rita Paine was my course instructor. I had an opportunity to use some customer-service skills the other day and it reminded me of the fictional paper on which I just happened to get an A. The purpose of the paper was to write about customer service in the fire service and describe what it meant to each of us.
I recently had the opportunity to teach a class on ventilation for a fire department that has a lot of large, low-rise apartment buildings in its district. Most of the buildings house low-income and/or elderly tenants, and the department frequently responds to smoke-removal calls from burned food. The fire chief wanted several young members in the department to hone their skills on positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) – a tactic they frequently use to remove smoke from these buildings.
We all know that the fire service is steeped in tradition. Many of these traditions are beneficial and provide us with culture and operational support and guidance. However, at other times, some of these traditions – if left unchallenged and without continued evaluation – put firefighters and the communities we protect at great risk. How we as a fire service manage doors and other access points during structure fires is one of those time-honoured traditions we must re-evaluate in order to operate safely and effectively in today’s fire environment. Door control is an incredibly important tactical capability for any progressive fire department.
We are continuing to look at sub-level rescues of a downed firefighter with a focus on rescue tactics. In October, we went over the use of rope to rescue a firefighter who is conscious and able to assist in the rescue process. Here, we are going to focus on tactics to rescue an unconscious downed firefighter, or a downed firefighter who is immobile due to an injury or an impedance of some sort.
"Attack 1 to command: this is a hoarder house.”
When I started working in the fire service in 1995, much of a new recruit’s training was based on knowledge passed down from senior members to rookies.
From the Vandalia Avenue fire in New York City in December 1998, in which three FDNY firefighters died, to the Forward Avenue fire in Ottawa in February 2007
You cannot mention the word communication today without a focus on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (and the list goes on) are playing greater roles in our lives. In the past we relied on mainstream media to report the news and inform us of events. Today everyone with an electronic device is photographer, reporter, complainer, and helper. But the public can be a valued communicator too, especially during an emergency.
When you’re a broadcaster, whether on radio or television, you’re constantly reaching out to an audience that you presume is there. For the most part, you’re talking into a microphone or camera in a one-way conversation without any feedback from those to whom you’re speaking. How’s that for motivation? In broadcasting school we were taught to treat our audience as just one person, therefore giving listeners the impression that we were talking directly to them and them alone. This experience was enhanced when broadcasters opened the phones and took calls, thus allowing a direct connection with the audience.  Magazine columnists are in a similar situation: we know the readers are there and we get reaction to what we say via emails and personal contact, but the feedback comes only after the column is published – weeks (sometimes months) after it has been written. Which is why the summer of 2014 was special for me; along with my Volunteer Vision co-author and good friend Vince MacKenzie, we took our opinions and columns off the pages of this magazine and to the people.   Over the summer, we presented what we called Volunteer Vision LIVE – three sessions in two provinces at opposite ends of the country. Thanks to Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King, who moderated two of our sessions in British Columbia, and Tim Pley, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of BC, who moderated in Gander, N.L., we took readers deeper into our columns, explaining where the ideas came from, the inspiration behind our stories and expanding on the issues we had written about, The beauty of our column is that Vince and I seem to touch on the same themes – not necessarily on purpose. It’s just the way we connect with the issues that face the fire service from coast to coast to coast. During the presentations, we brought forward several columns from the past few years; what struck me was that while the issues weren’t new, they are still relevant today, albeit with some new ideas and opinions. To say we all learned something from this exercise would be an understatement. The questions and comments in the rooms as we explored issues from recruitment and retention to retirement opened my eyes to the number of people who read what we have to say; there was a lot of acknowledgment and there were lots of heads nodding in silent recognition – or agreement – in each session.   While we maintained the same format and storyline, each of the three sessions was completely different. We were unscripted and unplugged, so to speak, and if it wasn’t for the moderators, all of our sessions would have run way over. In fact, all of them spilled into the foyers during the subsequent networking sessions.What I took away from those sessions goes far beyond meeting the readers; the experience reinforced to me that what I have to say is relevant to my peers. The fact that I have a hard time recruiting new members and staying ahead of the calendar resonates in other departments. My concerns over the future of the fire service is shared by many more; in fact, I’ve come to realize that while we tend to focus on recruitment on the front lines, we aren’t doing enough to address the need for leaders in our volunteer world. Seriously, it’s one thing to encourage new members to take on the daunting task of becoming a well-trained firefighter, but the need to step up and take on a leadership role adds a whole new wrinkle. Succession planning is vital to the health of any organization, and coming from a world that always has one foot firmly planted in the past, we need to be aware of this. We’re all not getting any younger, which is one thing I see as our biggest challenge in the future. Touching on one of Vince’s topics – the millennials in our ranks – can you actually see some of these people carrying your torch (and yes, I did say “your”)? As we grow older it may seem harder to realize, but it will and it has to happen.  There are times when we exist within our own little worlds, our small departments, without realizing that what’s happening in the next town – or province for that matter – has an impact on what we are doing locally. I guess we just need to be reminded of this; and, hopefully, through a column written by a couple of small-town fire chiefs, those messages are realized. Train as if your life depends on it, because it does, and understand that you are part of a great big family. I’ve been to Newfoundland and Labrador on three occasions and when asked recently if I have family back there, my answer was yes, yes I do have family back there – a fire family that gets bigger all the time thanks in a large part to my written words and those who read them.Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Email Tom at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept
It is common in smaller communities that the volunteer fire department is the only available emergency agency. Most of Canada’s smaller communities have fire stations, but they don’t always have police stations or medical centres. Therefore, when a major emergency incident or disaster strikes these communities, it is the volunteer fire departments that respond. Unlike in larger cities with emergency-management offices and full-time staff, rural, large-scale disasters are usually dealt with by the members of the volunteer department. The rural fire chief or senior fire officer is thrust into the role of disaster operations commander, or, in times of non-emergency, the role of emergency operations co-ordinators and planners. This can certainly be a challenging role to be thrust into without preparation.I would like to focus on one element of emergency planning: communication. When the emergency is over and evaluation and inquiry begins, communication is commonly identified as a key factor in the success or failure of disaster operations.  Emergency management communication includes directing emergency responders, sharing public information, and gathering data about the emergency. Therefore, the fire chief needs to know how to receive credible information and how to communicate to the public effectively. I think we can all agree that forms of communication have changed dramatically in the last five years with the growth of social media. In order to effectively communicate in today’s world, emergency planners now have to consider a social-media component to the emergency-operations plan.Credible information now comes in many forms from the public. It used to be that everyone phoned into the emergency services to report issues, but today, many people who witness the incidents use social media to inform everyone. While most social media information is credible, some is tainted with opinion and rumors that will quickly spread to the public. The deluge of tweets and posts lends itself to misinformation because the public can receive information as quickly as the officials handling the situation. Unfortunately, the constant monitoring of crucial information can rapidly overload a conventional public information officer or media centre. Reports from the public also generally come with photos that cannot be ignored by emergency operations centres. The challenge for local emergency managers is to capture that information to assist in a manner that is credible and timely. I learned a new term during a recent session on media training: the digital volunteer. It’s a relatively new concept as applied to emergency management, but I believe it will soon become a familiar term. The digital volunteer is a person who emergency managers identify to help monitor social media platforms for relevant information and data during emergencies. Digital volunteers are not actively engaged in the emergency operations centre, but are engaged with the public information officer to alert those in charge when significant messaging is trending. Digital volunteers are, in essence, social-media savvy spectators recruited to help filter the barrage of information. If you spend any time on social media, you can probably think of a few of those people now. During almost every emergency, people emerge online to provide information to the public through posts on social media, as though they were officials themselves.  We all know someone who is tuned into the event for whatever reason. Many times these people are actively engaged in the situation and can be a valuable resource to assist with analyzing the volume of information. Enlisting these digital volunteers to filter and inform the emergency operations centre of trending issues or damaging rumors will be very helpful to overall communication. We should not turn away from these opportunities that can help us navigate the changing world of emergency management. So why not write this concept into our emergency planning?This fall, I will participate in an exercise on the concept of the digital volunteer at an emergency management conference in Nova Scotia. I am excited to find out what the organizers have in store for us. While the concept of the digital volunteer is relatively new, I see great value in it as a tool to help fire departments keep on top of today’s busy communication world.Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince
There are many tools synonymous with the professions they serve. Think of firefighters and we think of everything from helmets and trucks to ladders and hoses.
Fire departments all have jurisdictions – areas that we cover and in which we provide protective services.
Firefighters strive to provide good customer service: that means treating others the way we would like to be treated – going above and beyond whenever possible and surprising people who don’t expect our do-onto-others attitude.
Volunteer firefighters who last a long time in the fire service can certainly gain a vast perspective on many aspects of life.
Social media can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Say the wrong thing, post the wrong picture and you have more than egg on your face.
I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to the designation of Canadian fire services as professional or volunteer.
As one generation gives way to the next, so does the makeup of our fire departments.
The past summer seems to have been rife with disaster and conflagrations. Newscasts and social media sites were filled with details of events and suffering, with floods in Alberta, forest fires in every province from British Columbia to Newfoundland, and the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Que.
I have written before about the benefits of involvement in the fire service beyond our own departments. As I expand my affiliations, both provincially and nationally, I continue to be amazed at the dedication and passion that those in the fire service hold for what we do, and just how that passion and pride fuels my positive attitude toward life.

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