Comment: May 2017
By Laura King
I first heard about tracking exposure to traumatic incidents during a Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) course in Lakeshore, Ont., a small community near Windsor.
During introductions – name, rank, time on the job – I stopped adding up the years of combined experience at 200, and we hadn’t yet gone beyond the front row: 24 firefighters from two departments – Lakeshore and Leamington – all officers, all volunteers who had started in their 20s and were seasoned veterans.
As is often the case during R2MR sessions, there was talk of this call and that call, the nasty ones, the unforgettable ones.
Imagine, then, among the two dozen people in the training room at Station 1 in Emeryville on a clear, crisp November morning, the numbers of responses, the memories, the patients or victims they attended in crushed cars or at medical responses, the people they helped, or lost – and also knew.
It was Lakeshore Chief Don Williamson who acknowledged as we discussed the cumulative effect of traumatic incidents that keeping track of responses could help chief officers prevent firefighters – or each other – from slipping into the unhealthy zones on the mental-health continuum.
Simply knowing that a firefighter or officer had been to a handful of messy calls over a period of time, acknowledging the impact of the responses – particularly in small communities – and ensuring that everyone knows it’s OK to talk, listen and not be OK, can make a difference, Williamson said.
I mentioned Williamson’s tracking exercise to Wayne Jasper, who is on the board of the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Jasper retired last year after 30 years as a firefighter with CFB Esquimalt, and, it turned out, is working with fire departments in western Canada to develop a system to tack traumatic exposures. Simple forms that ask simple questions and require simple answers can make a significant difference, Jasper says.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada teaches in the R2MR program that mental illness among first responders is rarely actually post-traumatic stress disorder, rather it’s the cumulative effect of personal and work stressors, and, so often, one event – a fatality, a relationship breakdown, an ill parent – pushes people to act out or turn to drugs, alcohol or violence. Knowing what to look for, knowing where your people have been, and simply, talking about those calls, is critical to prevention.
Our stories in this issue – tracking exposures on page 10, critical incident stress refresher training on page 42, and an interview with Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn about government measures to help first responders on page 30 – are testimony to how far we’ve come: politicians, mental-health professionals, firefighter associations, management, municipal officials and families all on the same page about the importance of good mental health.
After all, it is OK to not be OK, but it, as it he case with fire, prevention is the best option.