Fire Fighting in Canada

Boots on the Ground growing and giving back

June 21, 2024 
By Laura Aiken

Boots on the Ground is really blossoming, and first responders needing an anonymous, trained ear to talk to are all the better for it.

Dave McLennan, a retired police officer, started this non-profit peer support service about five and half years ago. His concept, which arose as part of a goal to do something purposeful with his retirement after 30 years in the police force alongside seeing the need for the resource, progressed from seed to plant via a steering committee of fellow police officers and two years of effort (2016 to 2018) developing Boots on the Ground before it launched. He wanted to provide peer support to first responders with PTSD and offer an alternative to workplace resources, of which he said a certain segment will engage with and another may be hesitant to use for fear of impact to career in reaching out for mental health help. The stigma is still quite felt for many.

The steering committee talked to professionals, other peer supporters and first responders with PTSD in designing the program with the goal of understanding what would have helped early on in their mental health journey.

“The overwhelming consensus was ‘If I had someone I could have trusted to talk to early on it would have made the world of difference.’ So that’s what we built our service delivery model on — this anonymous external resource to help versus monitor so they if they don’t want to reach out to work, then they can reach out to us,” said McLennan.

The Ontario birthed organization has answered over 3200 calls and grown from 40 to 50 volunteers at inception to 180 volunteers and an office in Alberta. The phone number, 1-833-677-BOOT (2668) is 24/7. Volunteers are all fellow retired or active first responders, and they receive 12 days of training from Boots on the Ground on topics such as peer support, suicide prevention and mental health. Volunteers are always needed and trained for free with flexible scheduling options and a time commitment of 16 hours a month with shifts in four-to-eight-hour blocks. Volunteers are on call from wherever they are, and if their phone rings, they just need to be available to answer and find a quiet place to talk.

Boots on the Ground also provides in-person support services, including group debriefs and therapy dog visits, but attendance is not taken, and notes are kept anonymous in keeping with its core mandate of providing anonymity.

The non-profit is based in Ontario and Alberta, but they don’t turn calls away from anywhere, or from anyone, and will look to provide resource suggestions for those outside these two home-base provinces. Though Boots on the Ground is positioned as a peer support help line, not a crisis line, they have intervened on 47 actively suicidal callers, said McLennan, so those crisis calls do come in.

“It’s first responders here to help other first responders who are ready to listen. It’s trained volunteers on the phone and they get it. They’ve been in the same situations they’ve been in, they’ve walked the same walk,” said McLennan. “You’re having a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation you were put in at work and but your reaction itself is very normal. You’re being human. Let’s get you the help you need.”



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