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The chaplain’s role in a fire department

The Oak Bay Fire Department is sharing this article written by the late Ken Gill, who was a retired firefighter and served as volunteer chaplain with Oak Bay and Esquimalt Fire Departments on Vancouver Island.

October 23, 2018 
By Ken Gill

He succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder this past spring. Gill was a pillar of support for the health and well-being of the Oak Bay fire community in Greater Victoria. His many contributions made lasting impacts on all those who had the opportunity to know him. His article showcases the importance of a fire chaplain’s role in supporting the health and well-being of firefighters and their families.

Many proactive fire departments are implementing holistic support initiatives and health and wellness programs. These programs are designed to educate, promote and encourage the health and well-being of firefighters which, in-turn, directly and indirectly impacts his or her home and family life. The goal of an effective health and wellness program is to build a firefighter’s resiliency, improve health outcomes and enhance their overall quality of life.

The Oak Bay Fire Department is one such proactive department. Early in 2014, the department, under the leadership of Fire Chief Dave Cockle, founded a customized health and wellness program based on the Fire Service Joint Labour Management Wellness Fitness Initiative principles. One of the key strategic building blocks of the program was to take a holistic and preventative approach in supporting the overall health and well-being of each firefighter (body, mind and spirit). From the earliest planning stages, Fire Chief Cockle recognized and promoted the value of having a fire chaplain within the department.

As Fire Chief Cockle has stated, “The chaplaincy program supports the health and wellness of our firefighters and their families by reducing the insular paramilitary structure of the department to accommodate and support the human aspects of the fire service through spiritual and emotional care.”


There are a variety of health and wellness program models. However, each of these models target and aim to support three specific elements of the person:

Body: involving one’s physical needs, health and nutrition

Mind: involving one’s social, emotional and mental health

Spirit: involving the human spirit (as opposed to our physical bodies)

A healthy spirit integrates and affects all three elements. A healthy spirit helps us to maintain our health, cope with illnesses, traumas, losses and other life transitions.

The spiritual component of health and wellness is where we encounter our faith and belief systems. All of us have a faith or belief in someone or something. This faith is what gives us intrinsic value and meaning and can be defined as having a complete trust or confidence in someone or something such as God, humanity or nature. Faith is a crucial part of spiritual health and is also the core of hope. Hope is the expectation of a positive, desirable future that gives us all the motivation to continue living.

■ What is spiritual care?
All people have spiritual needs and many have religious or faith-based needs. The chaplain strives to support and care for the spiritual and religious needs of his or her department members and their families. As firefighters face trauma, troubling situations or their own mortality, healthy spiritual practices may help many find peace and develop resiliency, allowing them to move forward.

Simply stated, the chaplain is one who takes on the role of providing spiritual care as part of an overall holistic support system for those in the fire service and their families.

■ What are some of these spiritual needs?
Spiritual needs and concerns usually relate to what we call the big questions of life. These questions can include:

  • Why is this happening?
  • Why is it happening to me?
  • What does it all mean?
  • How do I make sense of everything?
  • How do I feel about changes in my life?
  • What gives me comfort and hope?
  • What do I call good in my life? What do I call bad?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What do I trust? Who do I trust?
  • Who loves me and is loved by me, no matter what?
  • What or who, other than myself, do I believe is important in my life?

Some people find meaning, comfort, hope, goodness and community through their beliefs, faith and/or religious community and practices. Some people do not.

Regardless of whether religious faith is a part of a person’s life or not, spiritual concerns are still very important.

■ The chaplain’s role
The chaplain’s role is to provide a supportive, caring and compassionate service of spiritual care as a component of a holistic health and wellness program. The chaplain is committed to supporting firefighters and their families in order to help them experience and maintain spiritual wellness and wholeness

The chaplain’s principal goal is to simply be a presence, offering support by meeting people where they are at and offering encouragement, compassion and care during whatever life challenge or situation they are in. The chaplain serves those who serve with spiritual support. The chaplaincy is not about making people feel good, or being a nice person, or a helpful person, or even a good person. Chaplaincy is about being a strong spiritual presence in difficult circumstances and situations.

■ Chaplaincy models
The fire department chaplain may come from a variety of backgrounds. Chaplains may be a clergyperson (ordained minister serving a church congregation), or a layperson (a non-ordained church person), or someone with specialized knowledge or training in chaplaincy. The chaplain may also be an active or retired firefighter who takes on the role of providing spiritual care and support for his or her department. Many chaplains volunteer their time to serve the needs of departments in their community. Some may receive expense reimbursement or raise funding from their local church or other groups. Others might be paid part-time or full-time by the fire department. The chaplaincy model may be as varied as the fire departments.

While chaplains come from their own faith backgrounds and have their own beliefs, they do not serve to convert or attempt to convert anyone from one religion, belief or opinion to another. Chaplains will support and serve the needs of all members in their departments regardless of their beliefs or religious backgrounds. A chaplain will always respect a person’s spiritual ideas, values and perspectives. Acceptance is fundamental and chaplains are committed to care for, and support, everyone with respect and sensitivity.

■ Duties of the fire chaplain

Some of the duties a fire chaplain may perform include:

  • Conducting and/or assisting with fire department funerals or memorial services.
  • Caring for injured or sick personnel and families and doing hospital visits.
  • Involvement with CISM teams/training.
  • Offering support and assistance at emergency incidents.
  • Acting as a liaison with local clergy, churches or faith groups.
  • Facilitating invocations/prayers at ceremonies and special events.
  • Educating fire service personnel and families in areas of spiritual and emotional wellness.
  • Acting as a confidential listening ear to personnel and family members.
  • Recommending resources for personnel and family members who are seeking assistance for counselling or other wellness initiatives.
  • Being available as a resource to the fire chief, member association or union.

■ Starting a fire chaplaincy program

The first crucial step when considering a chaplaincy program is to determine if the department wants the program. This may require education and investigation into what a chaplaincy program is and what a chaplain may offer to the members.

As Fire Chief Cockle has stated, “We incorporated the chaplaincy service into the department to fill an evident void, to fulfill the humanity of the fire service. The department was lacking that key tie between what we do and see every day and the reality of everyday life as a human being.”

The next step in the process is to select a candidate to be the department chaplain. Before embarking on the search for a chaplain, it is important to understand what the department expects to accomplish from a chaplaincy program. It is recommended that these expectations be put in writing, as they will need to be discussed with any prospective chaplain.

It is also extremely important to identify the qualities that a department is looking for in a chaplain. Personal suitability, approachability and the personality of the chaplain will all influence the acceptance and effectiveness of the program.

When looking for potential candidates for your chaplaincy program, it may be helpful to consider some of the following:

  • Contact other fire departments, emergency services and any chaplains currently serving within your area.
  • Investigate fire chaplain organizations or associations such as the Federation of Fire Chaplains or, as in British Columbia, the B.C. Association of Fire Chaplains.
  • Look within your own department for a clergyperson or layperson.
  • Enquire through churches in your area or ministerial alliance.
  • Consider anyone who is effectively able to relate, without reservation, to all denominations and beliefs.

Not everyone is suitable to serve as a fire department chaplain, just as not everyone is suited to be a firefighter. Take time to interview and investigate any potential candidate. Have them visit the stations and meet the firefighters. Look at, and consider, all feedback from firefighters, as to whether the candidate would be able to build confidential and supportive relationships with them.

An effective fire chaplain will have much more to offer a department than just a well-meaning minister or firefighter trying to make a difference. Chaplains may come from a variety of backgrounds, professional training or experiences, but they will all need to approach the chaplaincy as a special calling to serve others in crucial and critical situations.

Chaplains will require specialized training and need to possess specific service strengths. Service strengths would include strong listening skills, empathy, patience and understanding. Training in grief and loss counselling, crisis intervention and pastoral care is crucial, as this is where the chaplain supports people in their pain, loss and anxiety, along with their triumphs, joys and victories. Firefighters that the chaplain serves are very special people engaged in a highly skilled, demanding and often dangerous profession. It is a tremendous responsibility and privilege to serve and support them.

The right chaplain will be able to provide a department with a vital service and make a significant and complementary addition to any holistic health and wellness program. Most importantly, a chaplain will offer purposeful presence, committed caring and confidential support.

If you are considering a chaplaincy program for your department, contact your local provincial chaplaincy for your area. The chaplaincy will have a wealth of information to share.

The late Ken Gill was a retired Oak Bay firefighter and served as a volunteer chaplain with Oak Bay and Esquimalt Fire Departments on Vancouver Island.

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