Health and wellness
Written by Nathalie Michaud and Wayne Jasper
September 2015 - Editor’s note: It’s not often a conference speaker silences a room and brings delegates to tears. That’s what happened in June in Penticton, B.C., and in July in Summerside, P.E.I., when firefighter Nathalie Michaud told fire officers her story about post-traumatic stress. The story is remarkable, ugly, even shocking. Wayne Jasper’s story is equally as compelling, that of a friend and fellow firefighter, connected by compassion but geographically more than half a country away. Here is their story.

Nathalie
I have learned what PTSD can do and how it can start. The simplest way I have found to describe it is this: PTSD is like the imprint of the emotion that stems from an event but your brain blocks it and locks it away because it’s too much to process. And, even though as time goes by, your brain knows the difference between what is real and what isn’t; it’s the emotional imprint that silently grows inside, just like a tumour.

On Jan. 30, 2010, Fire Chief Richard Stringer saw no way out. Depression, desperation and the presence of unrecognized PTSD got the best of him. That morning, Chief Stringer left his home while his wife slept and went to the fire department to face his last battle, his last demon – and hanged himself.

Chief Stringer had been my fire chief for the previous five years.

Richard Stringer was also my husband.

My world got turned upside down and changed forever the moment I found him. I shut down and no one saw it.

No one ever warned me of what was waiting for me in the future. When I closed my eyes at night, all I saw was the image of him hanging between the two fire trucks, the images and sounds of me running around in the hospital from department to department so I could officially identify his body; no one could really direct me as to where he was, so I had to ask at least five people in different departments. “Can you tell me where the body of my husband Richard Stringer is? I have to ID his body.”

The small town speculated; I was blamed. His suicide was in the media; there was nowhere for me to hide to grieve privately, to deal with rumours, wait for the official police report.

During this time, I felt nothing but shame and incredible guilt, and I had so many unanswered questions.

The day of his funeral, when the casket was carried out, two salutes took place: the first was a general salute by all firefighters, followed shortly after by a salute called by members of Chief Stringer’s Otterburn Park Fire Department. Even though I wasn’t in uniform, as his firefighter, by reflex, I saluted along with the rest of my department, clinging to my husband’s helmet. I was also his wife saluting my husband for the very last time.

This was followed by the wail of the Federal Q siren. To this day, that siren is a trigger and every time I hear it, I’m thrown back to that moment and I must deal with it.

Richard’s suicide and all that followed created PTSD that was finally diagnosed five years later. For those five years, I suffered in silence, not knowing that PTSD was slowly growing inside me ever so quietly and robbing me of who I was.

I can tell you what it feels like to follow the coffin of your husband clinging to the last thing you will ever have of him – his helmet; to never again hear his voice, his laughter, his touch, his comfort, his friendship. It rips you apart and all the million tiny pieces are scattered in such a violent way that even magic can’t glue you back together.

The guilt, the questions, the shame, the loss of who you are . . . they can kill you and it never really goes away. Richard’s suicide caused PTSD in me. His suicide, his death, also stripped me of my identity. I’m changed forever.

In my fire community, I’m forever Nathalie the widow of the chief who committed suicide. So to cope with all of it, I learned how to live dead inside. According to the police report, I missed him by maybe 30 minutes. I live with that every single day. Could I have stopped him?

In July 2013 in Lac-Megantic, I was prepared to do the job for which I had been trained.

As I got closer to the site, my heart sank, but my heart rate went up and so did my blood pressure; this was a feeling I recognized but chose to ignore. I kept pushing forward to get the job done.

That’s what’s expected right?

I felt OK until it was time to head back to the fire department for a break. Walking ahead of a group of firefighters, I kept looking back at the disaster site, wondering how it could be that a nearby church survived intact and how those streets and buildings, just on the other side of the railroad tracks, were reduced to dust.

My brain just could not compute the scene.

Then I realized that familiar crunching sound that I had been hearing all along was coming from under my boots. I stopped dead in my tracks, looked at my feet and got thrown back to 9-11, which had changed me forever. I could no longer tell where I was – in the situation from the past or in the present moment in Lac-Megantic.

Wayne
I consider myself fortunate to have met Nathalie several years ago while our respective organizations worked to honour Canada’s fallen firefighters in Ottawa. We had become friends over the years and in the fall of 2014, after a meeting, we had the chance to talk about presumptive legislations governing workplace illnesses for firefighters, and the subject of PTSD came up. After a brief conversation, Nathalie indicated to me she had been recently diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. This caught me a little by surprise initially as I wasn’t sure what to say next. I wondered if it was even OK to ask her about it or if some of the things I would say or ask would make it worse.

I have to admit, I was one of those people who didn’t realize what it means to try to deal with PTSD on a day-to-day basis, but after Nathalie talked about it for a while, I felt she was reaching out hoping that maybe I would talk about it with her more. The more she said, the more I realized I had to ask her.

I wanted to know how PTSD affected her job, how it affected her life off the job. Will it ever go away or even get better? How do you get PTSD? How does PTSD get you? Is there anything I can do to help? That’s a ton of stuff; would all these questions overwhelm her?

What did I really know about PTSD as it affects emergency-services workers other than what most of us have heard, which is that people with it are prone to severe depression and in the worst cases, committing suicide? Even tougher to digest were the next questions: had suicide crossed her mind? And how in the world do I even approach discussing that with her?

I decided to take that chance and ask her if she wanted to talk about her story. I was willing to listen and I really wanted know what she was going through.

And then I listened . . .

And I have to say that some of what I heard, including several incidents to which Nathalie had responded, hit me very hard, especially the affects the PTSD was having on her. Little did I know I was one of very few people who crossed the line and spoke with Nathalie about her PTSD. I also didn’t know it at that time, but the conversation we were having about PTSD that evening would eventually help to save Nathalie’s life.

The conversation wasn’t about just the events that caused Nathalie to develop PTSD, but also what was happening to her mentally and physically because of it. I was not expecting to hear how much PTSD disrupted her life or the extent to which it had changed her abilities to do what would appear on the outside to be normal, easy, everyday tasks that most of us take for granted.

I remember on one occasion I chatted on the phone with Nathalie while she grocery shopped so I could provide a distraction from others who might encroach on her “bubble” at the checkout, so she would know there was someone with her whom she trusted. I remember thinking how horrible it must be to live that way, wondering if you are going to get through the day. Surely there must be some coverage and help available, I thought. It quickly became clear that it wasn’t that easy.

Nathalie
Wayne was one of the few people who dared ask or talk to me about PTSD and I felt that 100 pounds lifted off my shoulders because finally I could talk to someone.

Being asked questions and talking made me lose some sense of loneliness and isolation.

I’ve learned that there are two ways PTSD can kill you: the first way, you’re alive, slowly dying inside as PTSD controls the every essence of you; the second is suicide.

Living with PTSD and not knowing or understanding what was happening to me was extremely difficult and frightening. However, once I was diagnosed by qualified medical personnel, my life became easier to manage.

When I got the diagnosis I didn’t do a happy dance in the doctor’s office, but the diagnosis gave me hope.

I have PTSD.

PTSD does not have me.

PTSD does not define me.

PTSD is not about what’s wrong with me, it’s about what happened to me.

After proper diagnosis in summer of 2014, I went in November to a private therapy centre called La Vigile. It was also there, that because of a trigger, I discovered I had PTSD from Lac-Megantic. One of the biggest things I learned was that with each traumatic event in my life, I was stripped of the feeling of safety; this changed how I see the world and I now constantly watch over my shoulder, which is known as hyper arousal.

The following is my day-to-day life, before and after diagnosis.

My first battle is realizing that my eyes are open and I have to get up and face the day. I’m always scared of what the day will bring – or do – to me.

Sleep
  • I have insomnia, but when I do sleep, I get cold sweats so badly I need to change my clothes and sheets.
  • I keep lights on all over the house; darkness is now frightening.
  • I self-medicate with prescription drugs but when this was not enough, my best friend became tequila and then more alcohol took over.
Eating
  • I had little or no appetite because of my high level of anxiety.
  • I rarely dine in restaurants because I can’t stand crowds and noises. If I go, my back needs to be against the wall so I can see all around me at all times. I have to have at least one direct route to an exit and I always have two exit plans that I go over and over and over in my head during the dinner. You think I enjoy dinner like this?
Hyper arousal
  • Anxiety.
  • Outbursts, anger, irritability, lashing out, over reacting, guilt, shame, insecurities about my own mind and actions.
  • am constantly watching over my shoulder and am jumpy.
Triggers
  • They can come up and bite me in the behind and there is never ever a way to prepare.
Flashbacks
  • On a daily basis.
Reviviscence
  • This starts with a trigger, then a flashback and then, something happens and brings me back so deep inside that I’m disconnected from reality. During that time I’m reliving the event all over again and I have no control. There is a window of about 10 seconds to get me out of that state, if I’m lucky. Sometimes it can be so strong that I spiral down very quickly and don’t even have time to realize what’s happening and then, well, the outcome is not good.
Symptoms
  • Due to hyper arousal, I get very impatient and can be aggressive when there is too much noise.
  • I avoid public places and or crowds or any kind, clothing stores, malls, restaurants and even grocery stores.
  • I have short-term memory loss and my cognitive abilities are reduced. Thankfully, they are returning due to continuous therapy.
Other symptoms that appeared as PTSD and got worse before diagnosis
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Lack of interest in anything.
  • Detached from surroundings and avoiding people, including friends and family.
  • Depression hit. This led me to think about suicide and the “how.”
  • Suicide became more and more present in all thought process and a plan took form.
  • Suicide became a beautiful “life.”
On that one night, I was intoxicated, got in my truck and drove to a specific train crossing. I sat there in my truck, waiting for the train to end it for me.

Today, I know why the train tracks were the best way for me:
  1. I saw and know the destruction a train can do and the chances of survival are slim.
  2. I didn’t want my parents to have to identify my body like I had to ID Richard’s body. I needed to ensure there would be nothing to ID.
Coming out in public and talking about PTSD openly, I had to fight my fears of being judged by my peers, never getting a promotion and not getting hired elsewhere within my fire community because I am labeled.

Darkness and silence are the two killers that wait for PTSD sufferers.

If you feel anyone may be showing signs of PTSD, it’s extremely important that you do not wait for him or her to come to you but instead go to your friend or colleague as soon as possible and be ready to listen without judgment.

Most of all, follow up. Never leave that person’s side, because if they trust you enough to share their darkest fears, they need you there throughout the healing process too.

As emergency workers, we always work as a team. In a fire, it’s always two in and two out, and this is no different.

In July 2014 when I was told by my doctor and psychologist that I needed to enter a detox or therapy program, my response to them was, “F--- off! I don’t have a problem!”

In mid-October, while having a dinner meeting with a trusted and respected friend, he asked me how I was and waited for an actual answer. Then he asked, “How’s my favourite firefighter really doing?” I collapsed.

He had noticed signs back in April, but I was closed when he approach me. He strongly suggested a centre that helps only emergency first responders, a 30-day closed therapy program that also deals with PTSD. I told him, “Call now before I change my mind.”

He called La Vigile. A staff person stayed on the phone with me for two hours and there was a follow-up call every day until I went in on Sunday, Nov. 2 – the day my new life started.

Wayne
As I took the time as a friend to be there for Nathalie, something else became very apparent to me about PTSD – it doesn’t just affect the person suffering from it. In fact, someone suffering from PTSD can bring on much mental pain and anxiety to those who are close to them as they try to figure out what that person is going through. Inevitably, their friends, loved ones and co-workers can be affected by the actions of the person suffering from PTSD and may need assistance dealing with that aspect of it – they may start to struggle just as much while caring for someone suffering from PTSD.

Through our conversations, I know firsthand how hard it was to listen to Nathalie talk about what she was going through and not know if I had the ability to help her get through a triggered emotion, or even whether I might say the wrong things and make it worse.

It was heart-wrenching for me to process Nathalie explaining to me how the nightmares and depression brought on by PTSD were getting the best of her, that she couldn’t see any other way to make the pain stop other than the worst-case scenario we were trying to prevent.

As Nathalie underwent her 30-day closed therapy session at La Vigile, she was able to communicate only briefly with friends and loved ones on the outside. Through these very brief periods of contact, it felt like I was drowning and I was only able to break the surface long enough to get a taste of how she was doing, but not long enough to get the full breadth of how her therapy was progressing. This made it extremely hard for me as Nathalie’s friend to make it through to the next phone call, not having a full understanding of how she was doing until the next time we talked. It was very difficult to determine at what level the therapy was helping Nathalie.

As Nathalie went through her therapy, I found it extremely difficult to stand by her throughout all the changes she was experiencing, but I refused to turn my back on her. There was no way I was going to let her down when she needed the support of a friend she trusted as she went through this learning process.

Inevitably though, realizing the PTSD sufferer is being given the necessary support and treatment can lift a great burden off the shoulders of family, friends and loved ones, which makes it much easier for them to cope as well.

What I have learned in talking with Nathalie about PTSD is how important it is to stand beside a person through the darkest moments just by listening without judging; it may be the single most important thing you can do for that person. And be prepared to listen a lot, because once a PTSD sufferer finds that comfort level and trust in talking with you, he or she can sometimes talk for hours as everything comes to the surface. Allow the person space but always be aware that someone suffering from PTSD may spiral downward unexpectedly and sometimes just being there without saying anything can do the most for that person. Do not put any pressure on someone to get over it or suck it up, but instead be there while he or she makes adjustments to come through a triggered emotion; doing so can make the world of difference.

I am very fortunate to have some good friends on my department with whom I have been able to share a lot of this; one of them asked me a question that I did not expect. Surprisingly, several days later with no knowledge that I had been asked this question already, Nathalie asked me the same question. I’m sure I had a deer-in-the-headlights look as I fumbled for an answer.

It was clear to both Nathalie and my colleague that I made a very serious commitment to help her get through the hardest moments in dealing with PTSD, and to be that trusted friend she could call on and talk to at any time of day or night, to help her get through the crippling moments. So far so good.

The question: What did I think would happen to me if all the efforts to help Nathalie failed and she took her own life anyway?

The question haunts me. I had thought about it but never really accepted the fact that it might happen, and I still don’t want to. But the question made me think, and with what I know today about how PTSD can affect friends and families, it made me wonder how her PTSD was now affecting me.

PTSD is a horrible illness that can take its toll on more than just the person suffering from it.

Nathalie
Since my therapy at La Vigile I’ve learned to better understand my symptoms and what causes them.

The hardest part of the therapy was Nov. 29, 2014, the day I came out and had to live my new normal in a world that had not changed.

I constantly have the haunting thoughts, “Will I get triggered? Will I be able to control it? Do I tell? Will they judge me?”

Another question is how and when do I tell someone I just started to date that I have an illness, an injury that is so taboo and judged? Will he run with his feet glued to his behind?

The man who chose to not run after I told him I suffered from PTSD asked why I wanted to speak out. Why put myself out there and risk it all – my reputation, my career, the goal, the big picture?

It’s time to talk, to change things. My voice will be heard.

But our voices together will be louder.



Nathalie Michaud has been a paramedic, firefighter, fire-prevention officer and fire investigator during her 15-year career in emergency services in Quebec. She is on the board of the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association and has been its Quebec director since 2012. She is also on the board of the Federation quebecois des intervenants en securite incendie since April. Nathalie is a master instructor for St. John’s Ambulance. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Wayne Jasper has served more than 32 years in the fire service, 30 as a career firefighter with CFB Esquimalt Fire Rescue in Victoria. He has also served nine years on the board of directors for the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation as LODD application-committee chair. Contact him at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


Written by Matthew Johnston
September 2015 - Have you ever found yourself at a social event and sparked up a conversation with a random person that went something like this:

Random person: “So what do you do for work?”

You: “I am a firefighter.”

Random person: “I could never do that . . . to see what you must see.”

You probably brushed this comment aside and moved along with your evening. But this conversation is an important reminder that in order to deal with the duties of professional fire fighting, at some point in your life, your mind was forced to alter the way you interpret a traumatic experience. As with the formation of a callous on your hand, your mind had to blister first in order to thicken and harden.

This psychological process meant that you had to let the analytical aspect of your mind – getting the job done – suppress nearly all of your natural emotional responses. This shift, through training and experience, changed the way your brain organizes information to the point that what was once considered traumatic became a normal part of your daily reality.

Recent events have made it clear that witnessing trauma can affect firefighters to the point that they become victims of their own professions. In the summer of 2014, Global News reported that 13 Canadian first responders had committed suicide over the spring of that year. In the 10 weeks that followed, the number rose to 23, and by publication, according to the organization Tema Contour, the number was at least 29. (The actual number of first responder suicides is likely significantly higher than media reports suggest as many suicide completions are often masked by lethal methods that appear accidental.) The spike in numbers indicates a firm systemic mental-health crisis is now gripping first responders across Canada. Media articles often point to post-traumatic stress and other mental illness as the root causes of first responder suicides, which paints a bleak picture for the struggling individual who may be apprehensive to reach out for mental-health support.

Adding to the stigma, the suicide of a colleague often leaves many co-workers in shaken, introspective states, filled with questions and uncertainties of how effective they are at assessing their own personal mental health and wellbeing. For these reasons, first responders, employers and mental-health professionals across Canada have the common interest of finding new ways to assist first responders in recovering from the trauma they regularly experience.

Current challenges
Global News reported last year that some of the Toronto police officers who had taken their own lives were getting various forms of psychological services and supports. First responders that may be struggling with symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often have the daunting task of undoing many years of trauma in the face of time-limited therapy.

Well-intentioned therapists commonly implement a variety of short-term, solution-focused interventions in the hope of temporarily alleviating the layered effects of longstanding trauma. These deeply seeded traumatic memories continue to resonate within the individual’s being well beyond the clinician’s office, and are often camouflaged by more recognizable and, oddly, more acceptable personal crises, such as divorce, interpersonal conflict and substance use. This therapeutic complexity makes traditional employee-assistance programs (EAPs) inadequate in addressing the often multiple, traumatic work-related events that underlie many of the personal crises faced by struggling first responders.

There is a unique subculture in a paramilitary workplace that extends into the lived emotional reality of first responders. Police, firefighters, paramedics and prison staff work under a command structure in which personal decision-making is restricted by industry protocols and department guidelines. This paradigm of training creates dependable, logic-based behaviour that dominates personal thoughts and actions in the face of extremely stressful situations. These protocols serve to reassure first responders that they did everything they could during a potentially traumatic situation. However, many first responders struggle the most when they physically leave work, yet remain emotionally handcuffed to the memory of a troubling call. In order to understand the power of a traumatic memory, first responders may benefit from exploring how their workplace duties and subcultures impact their everyday functioning.

Building a wall
Our limbic system consists of brain structures that largely govern emotions, behaviours and long-term memory. During a potentially traumatic encounter, first responders are trained to remain calm so that emotional and behavioural patterns follow predictable paths, reflecting industry best practices. This consistency requires first responders to place personal feelings, beliefs and sensations on hold as the analytical mind overrides the emotional challenges of the circumstances.

In order to achieve a calm state, the limbic system is suppressed to cope with the demands of a situation that would either paralyze or cause most humans to flee the given situation. The traditional fight, flight or freeze reaction to stress and anxiety – responses that have been integral to human evolution – are simply not behavioural options for first responders attending emergency situations.

Over time, first responders attending calls of a traumatic nature, typically develop a strong dissociative barrier between risk and action. This allows first responders to run into a burning building, confront a robbery suspect or quell the bleeding of a young child. In these moments, the needs of civilians supersede the physical and emotional harm that first responders may experience. While such actions may be well-suited for risk-taking personality types, it also shows the power that a well-trained analytical mind can have in overriding the natural emotional and behavioural reactions to a dangerous situation.

Without a variety of techniques to release the effects of witnessed traumas, the analytical minds of first responders can build up like dams and create barriers that interrupt natural flows and ranges of emotions. A restricted emotional energy leaves a struggling first responder to experience a fast-flowing, albeit limited range of thoughts and feelings. These buoyant thoughts and feelings have a tendency to fuel a hyper-aroused state of mind that can produce raw, unprocessed emotional reactions. As unresolved trauma continues to build, the integrity of an emotional and cognitive dam is often breached, which releases uncontrollable images that prevent healthy recovery from taking place. A lost sense of internal control can ultimately progress towards the debilitating state of mind known as PTSD.

If a struggling first responder chooses to ignore certain signs and symptoms, traumatic imagery has the power to dominate attention and is intensified by the thoughts and feelings that accompany emotional pain. This type of imagery can become so powerful that the mind misinterprets or ignores important social cues to the point that it can drive friends, co-workers and loved ones away without any awareness on behalf of the struggling individual.

A closed loop of traumatic thinking and feeling fuels a hyper-aroused state that leads a first responder to having difficulty unwinding from work and experiencing sleep disturbances that exacerbate anxiety-based symptoms. Therefore, it is important for first responders to identify activities that cultivate a peaceful state of mind and quell restlessness. It is only during these moments that traumatic material will have adequate time to aerate, leading to effective stress recovery.

You should seek the help of a professional mental health clinician when you have:
  • Difficulty sleeping including frequent nightmares and night terrors
  • Unwanted thoughts and feelings that affect concentration
  • Flashbacks and powerful, troubling imagery
Chronic fatigue and loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities
  • Irritability towards others including co-workers, strangers and loved ones
  • Addictions including alcohol, drugs and body enhancement supplements
  • Self-isolating behaviours, including a lack of interest in social connectedness
  • Frequent feelings of hopelessness, shame and/or guilt
  • Compulsion to work excessively at the expense of important relationships
Invest in your mental health
One of the advantages that some first responders have is the opportunity to achieve adequate work-life balance. Shift-work rotations combined with holidays throughout the year enable members to have sufficient time off to engage in healthy self-care activities. These opportunities allow firefighters to experience both physical and emotional recovery from work-related duties – but only if the first responder is open to actively engaging in healing practices. While hobbies and interests should not be viewed as an alternative to accessing mental-health services, engaging in regular, healthy activities can lead to many of the same outcomes as effective talk therapy.

Tip: The more resistance you have to engaging in a healthy activity, the more you should push yourself to do it. Limbic memory steals a lot of healthy energy and taking an active approach to quell its powerful impact is one of the few ways to accelerate recovery from work-related stress.

During difficult times, first responders, as with all humans, have a tendency to turn away from many of the activities that can bring them greater work-life balances. Immersing in healthy activities fosters a state of mindfulness – where the first responder’s full attention is in the present without conscious awareness or judgement. This state of mind is a universal stress-recovery practice that reduces the dissociative barrier between the analytical and emotional mind.

During mindfulness-based activities, emotional pain is allowed to aerate spontaneously and naturally. We simply feel better after spending time in nature, finishing a hobby-based project or helping others. Keeping up with a variety of mindfulness-based activities is especially important for first responders who are resistant to accessing professional mental-health services.

Common activities that cultivate mindfulness:
  • Breathing exercises and cardiovascular activities including sports and hiking
  • Creativity woodworking and restoration activities
  • Healing imagery, music, photography and cooking
  • Compassion – volunteering and helping others
  • Connectedness – spending time with loved ones and friends
  • Nature engagement camping, fishing and hunting
  • Physical healing massage therapy and yoga
  • Spiritual religious practices and setting time aside to experience silence
Engaging in mindful self-care measures along with talk therapy allows firefighters to not only digest the effects of work-related trauma, but also reclaim a healthy emotional life. A life filled with positive relationships, an improved outlook and ultimately greater
life expectancy are goals that everyone should strive for, and deserves. Mindfulness activities can reduce symptoms consistent with PTSD, while also counteracting other related psychological issues including depression and anxiety.

Moving forward, the test for all first responders is finding ways to actively engage in healthy activities during the most challenging points in their careers and lives. While this process will involve a level of vulnerability that may be unfamiliar to most, the emotional crises faced by first responders across Canada warrant the need to embrace and expand on additional ways to recover and heal from witnessed trauma.

Dedicated to #287, #318 and #445; rest in peace, brothers.


Matthew Johnston is a full-time firefighter in British Columbia and a trained mental health clinician. He is certified in critical incident stress management and operates a mental health clinic that specializes in treating first responder trauma. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Written by Keith Stecko
In June I attended the BC Fire Expo and Fire Chiefs Association of BC conference in Penticton. During the conference, I sat in on one session in particular that stirred powerful emotions not only within me but also in every fire officer in the entire room. The energy was raw, and, at times, the silence was deafening. It was a story told by firefighter Nathalie Michaud about her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This was the first time that Michaud stood in front of a packed room and bared it all: the dark thoughts and feelings of suicide and hyper vigilance; waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat-soaked bed; flashbacks; self medicating with alcohol; anger and helplessness. She relived the horrific images, smells, and sounds that have haunted her.

On Jan. 30, 2010, Michaud reported to her station in Otterburn Park, Que., for duty and found Fire Chief Richard Stringer hanging in the fire hall. Not only was Stringer her chief, he was also her husband.

As I looked around the room packed with fire officers, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of it.

Three years later, Michaud was one of the responders to Lac-Megantic and explained that she was often referred to as the rock by her peers and the people who know her well. They saw her, she said, as steady and strong, but, as she pointed out in her talk, “It turned out to be the very thing that also hurt me.” How else was she expected to act when something traumatic happened?

I sat still in my seat and listened to Michaud tell her story of finding her husband. I watched her, standing tall in her uniform, stoic and steadfast, occasionally trembling, sometimes squeezing her stress ball. It was obvious to me that every word she uttered came at a great emotional cost as she summoned strength to tell her story.

When Michaud stepped back from the lectern to signal that she was done, the audience stood and erupted with applause. It was a clear demonstration to Michaud of the support from her fire-service family.

Michaud is no doubt one of the bravest and most courageous people I have had the pleasure to meet. She stands a beacon of light for those who are suffering from PTSD in silence. She described the effect of the disorder with perfect clarity: “I’ve learned that there are two ways PTSD can kill you. First, you’re still alive, but you’re slowly dying inside. Second, suicide.”

Later at the conference I connected with two of my colleagues; both confided in me that they were struggling with PTSD. One colleague had just starting to talk to someone about his experience. As we talked, I could see by the look on his face that it weighed heavily on him.

My other colleague has been off work and has been receiving help, however, insurance coverage is limited and he is desperately seeking all avenues of assistance, including worker compensation. The situation has been emotionally draining and stressful for him; the process includes recounting his many years of responding to various traumatic calls in order to determine if he actually is suffering from PTSD.

In both of these circumstances, I mentioned to my colleagues that suffering in silence needs to stop. Coming forward and opening up is the most important step to take. Keeping the poison of PTSD inside will only continue to erode a person and can become very destructive. I was grateful that they felt they could talk to me openly about how they feel.

I believe that PTSD treatment needs to be a national strategic priority for all fire-service associations. That means pursuing and having clear discussions with provincial and territorial governments to have PTSD recognized under presumptive legislation. If a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, the condition should be presumed to have risen out of and in the course of employment, unless the contrary is proven.

Members of the fire service respond in their communities with pride. The first word in their vocabulary is action, and they do so by putting both their physical and emotional safety at risk.

We need to talk about PTSD openly, and support and educate one another without fear of being seen as damaged goods, marginalized or cast aside. Maybe the most important action you can take is to check in with one of your fire-service colleagues and ask, “Is everything OK?”


Keith Stecko is the fire chief and emergency program co-ordinator in Smithers, B.C. He joined the fire service in 1986 as a firefighter/paramedic level 2 advanced life support, served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a graduate of the Lakeland College bachelor of business in emergency services program and the public administration program from Camosun College. Contact Keith at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @KeithStecko


Written by Staff
Firefighters and all those who respond to crisis situations are subject to enormous stressors in the field.

On Aug. 11, join mental-health educator and former police officer Debbie Bodkin for a FREE one-hour webinar to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder, its effects and developing coping mechanisms.

Speaker: Debbie Bodkin, principal, Inspiraction Presentations
Date: Aug. 11, 2015
Time: 2:00 p.m. EST
Duration: 45 minutes (with 15 minute Q&A)
Cost: FREE 



As part of their work-related activities, firefighters may face stressful circumstances or find themselves engaged in crisis situations. Such encounters can take a toll on a person's mental wellbeing, potentially leading to post-traumatic stress or occupational stress injuries. As a speaker, trainer and educator, Bodkin will address the causes of these types of injuries, offer advice and provide coping mechanisms for sufferers in a one-hour webinar. Bodkin has more than 20 years experience in the policing field and also participated in overseas missions in Kosovo, Chad and Sudan. She is currently an instructor for the Mental Health First Aid Course.

Join Bodkin and moderator Neil Sutton, editor of Canadian Security, on Aug. 11 for an opportunity to explore this sensitive and important topic. Participants will engage in a 45-minute presentation and be able to direct their questions to Bodkin in a 15-minute Q&A session.

Register today!

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Written by Maria Church

June 1, 2015 - It’s 11:30 a.m. in Whitehorse. With practised ease, 10 firefighters don their PPE, turn on their SCBAs, and line up at the base of a five-storey training tower.

Written by Maria Church
Mississauga firefighter Jodine Hough has a soft, calm voice – a trait that likely makes her an asset in her role as a peer team member. She described that role with humility.
Written by Len Garis
A new online course offered by the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) teaches building managers and owners how to take a leadership role in fire-safety planning in their buildings.
Written by Keith Stecko
In the March issue I outlined some of the emotions that firefighters may feel after a critical incident, and some of the signs and symptoms that may be associated with those feelings. The next step is to talk about strategies to increase your emotional resiliency, and how the organization can do the same.
Written by Maria Church
May 2015 - Mississauga firefighter Jodine Hough has a soft, calm voice – a trait that likely makes her an asset in her role as a peer team member. She described that role with humility.
Written by Keith Stecko
Its 2:30 a.m. and you wake up in a cold sweat. You have an impending feeling that everything around you is falling apart: reality, as you know it, seems to be fragmented; random thoughts run through your head; you are unable to concentrate on any one thought; you are trying to get a grip on why you are feeling this way . . . you keep asking yourself in your head, “Why is this happening?” Your heart is racing; you have feelings of hyper-vigilance. There may be smells, or images such as movies that play over in your head. This is shaking you straight through to your very core. And this is not the first time this has happened to you.

You think to yourself “Wait a minute, this is not who I am. Why is this happening? I am strong and this does not happen to me.”

If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced the psychological and physiological reactions to a critical incident.

The most important thing you need to understand is that you are not broken or damaged goods. In fact, you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event.

First thing’s first: my perspective on critical-incident stress is based on my training as a peer de-briefer and experience with people in both the fire service and the armed forces. It’s important that first responders understand the emotional response to a critical incident and learn emotional resiliency strategies from individual and organizational perspectives.

One of the things that separates firefighters from civilians is training – copious amounts of training; endless training – and for good reason. Further, there are several outcomes that training provides; one of those outcomes is expected behaviour in a given circumstance. However, no amount of training prepares emergency responders for the bad things they will encounter many, many times over the course of their careers. Simulations and full-scale exercises pale in comparison to what responders experience come game day.

So, what is a critical incident? In essence, a critical incident is any event that significantly overpowers a person’s coping methods, such as a sudden death or a line-of-duty death. A critical incident is also any situation faced by emergency responders that causes a disruption or distressing change in their physical or psychological functioning. There are unusually strong emotions attached to critical incidents that have the potential to interfere with a person’s ability to function either at the scene or away from it.

Critical incidents produce characteristic sets of psychological and physiological reactions or symptoms in all people, including emergency-service personnel. Typical symptoms of critical-incident stress include restlessness, irritability, excessive fatigue, sleep disturbances, anxiety, suspiciousness, startle reactions, depression, moodiness, muscle tremors, difficulty concentrating, nightmares, vomiting, and diarrhea.

The physical and emotional symptoms that develop as part of a stress response are normal, but have the potential to become dangerous to the responder if they become prolonged. Researchers have also concluded that future incidents (even those that are more “normal”) can be enough to trigger a stress response. Prolonged stress saps energy and leaves the person vulnerable to illness. Under certain conditions, responders may have the potential for life-long after-effects. Symptoms are especially destructive when a person denies their presence or misinterprets the stress responses as something going wrong with him or her.

The severity of reactions depends on factors related to the incident, such as suddenness, intensity, duration, available social support, severity and nature of the event, and factors related to the person. These include past experience, personal loss, perception of threat, personal coping abilities, degree of personal danger, the present circumstance of the person’s life, behaviour of others, role and level of responsibility.

Critical incidents cannot be predicted, nor can critical-incident stress be prevented. However, you can increase your resistance by being healthy. In Part 2 of this series in May, we will discuss strategies to become more resilient and what the organization – the municipality or your department – can do. Until then, take care of yourself. As for me, I am off to a yoga class.


Keith Stecko is the fire chief and emergency program co-ordinator in Smithers, B.C. He joined the fire service in 1986 as a firefighter/paramedic level 2 advanced life support, served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a graduate of the Lakeland College bachelor of business in emergency services program and the public administration program from Camosun College. Contact Keith at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @KeithStecko


Written by Elias Markou
Spend an hour online reading wellness websites and popular blogs and you will quickly learn that detox and cleansing are the new buzzwords around health. Google detox, and you will be surprised by the diversity of the people talking about how they can help you improve your body by simply doing a three- to 28-day food fast or juice cleanse. These detox programs can be dangerous if they are delivered by poorly trained or untrained practitioners. As well, programs online are often sold as one size fits all, which can be harmful if you are a smaller person taking medicines intended for someone larger. I think there is tremendous value in a regular detoxification program for firefighters, but I believe it has to be safe and effective and there definitely has to be solid science behind the process.

By far the most frequently asked question in my medical practice is about detoxification or cleansing. Patients ask me how I can help them clean their bodies using a detoxification program. To clarify, we are talking about how the average Joe can remove toxins, restore bodily function and feel rejuvenated. To truly understand the detoxification process in firefighters’ bodies, we need to first explore toxic exposure in the fire service.

We often forget how toxic this planet really is. Since the Second World War, there have been close to 80,000 man-made chemicals created in labs. After completing your morning routine of showering, shaving, moisturizing, applying after-shave lotion and brushing your teeth, you have exposed yourself to, on average, 35 toxic chemicals, of which five are carcinogenic. And all of that happens before you put on your bunker gear and race towards a burning building that is spewing out a cocktail of hazardous chemical substances.

A firefighter’s greatest risk of chemical exposure occurs during fires or hazmat calls, during which he or she can be exposed to chemicals by skin contact or by inhalation. A multitude of chemicals are released from the combustion of building materials and building contents. Perfluorinated compounds and polychlorinated dioxins are two very common chemicals released from walls, fabric, wiring, equipment, furniture, paint and carpets, and are extremely hazardous not to mention potentially deadly.

While one exposure does not mean contraction of cancer, disease or illness, a 25-year career filled with hundreds of fire calls and hundreds situations with potentially hazardous chemicals can and does have an effect on the human body. In my experience treating firefighters, they always remember the one fire that affected their health the most.  

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters Presumptive Health Initiative (http://www.iaff.org/hs/phi/), scientific evidence demonstrates that firefighters are at an increased risk of heart disease, lung disease, infectious exposure and cancer. We can assume that chemical exposure is a large reason for the increased risk. Studies looking at toxic chemical exposures also make direct links to other health conditions such as thyroid disease, diabetes, neurological conditions, and auto-immune conditions, to mention a few.

The fire service takes some necessary precautions by asking firefighters to wear their SCBAs and other PPE during the entire fire operation in order to reduce their chemical exposure. As well, the frequent cleaning of PPE is taken very seriously, especially after large fires. Science tells us the majority of toxic chemicals are fat soluble, which allows them to make their way through the skin into the bloodstream if a firefighter is exposed to contaminated bunker gear.

Environmental monitoring or bio-monitoring as a form of exposure testing is on the horizon and will likely become a very important way for firefighters to monitor their health in the future. A quick visit to the IAFF website and you will come across newly posted information on bio-monitoring. Bio-monitoring is the term for testing urine, blood, saliva and stool for toxic chemicals to determine chemical exposure and bio-accumulation. Bio-accumulation is the build-up of heavy metals and chemicals in the human body. While the presence of chemicals does not mean you have a diagnosed condition, we know from a number of studies that toxins have the ability to stress the body, and long-term chemical presence can lead to chronic conditions.

The human body has an amazing ability and capacity to detoxify and eliminate most if not all toxic chemicals over time. From scientific studies, we now know how to help the body remove these chemical toxins, and we will explore how this is done in Part 2 of this firefighter detoxification series in May.


Elias Markou is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Written by Tom Bremner
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.
Written by Tom Bremner
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.
Written by Mike Vilneff
"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.
Written by Jay Shaw
We’ve all been there. The station gong goes off and you hurry your way to the printer, the driver plots the route on the map and we take off, leaving a swinging Plymovent and four sets of shoes on the ground as the bay door closes.

En route, in the back of the engine, we look up the call details on the laptop and I start running through possible what-ifs for what will no doubt be another routine shortness-of-breath call. The run time is about 2.5 minutes and the conversation quickly changes to the weather, and whether the Jets will pull out another victory on the road.

We take the trauma bag, television, and the 02 kit and make our way up the sidewalk. I remember hearing one of the guys on the crew say we should get some fuel on the way back from this run. As I walk into this split-level house I am greeted by a young West African man sitting on the steps who says a pleasant hello. This guy is talking and breathing well, so A and B are good, I’m thinking.

As I introduce myself and reach for the patient’s wrist to take a radial pulse and start asking some questions, I turn to pull out a stethoscope from the trauma bag to start doing vitals; the man starts to cough violently. Because my body is turned down and to the right below him, I can feel his wet cough land on my left forearm.

With in seconds I start to wonder: the symptoms sound like the flu. This guy seems OK but he will need to be checked out at the hospital. The medics arrive and we load the patient onto the stretcher. The charge medic takes my report and we agree that this is not an Ebola call.

The medic starts to ask the patient some more questions, and all of the sudden the answers are different: a family member has recently travelled back home from Guinea. The patient is coughing and trying to speak; my heart starts to race as the man coughs and tries to explain that his mother has, in fact, travelled to Guinea. My mind is racing, I feel ill to my stomach, as I am now thinking about what it will mean for my family if I have to be quarantined. This can’t be happening here, in Winnipeg.

I’m afraid, nervous, and start to guard my left arm from touching anyone or anything as I listen and stare intently while the patient forms his words and tries to speak while catching his breath from coughing. The man is pleasant and co-operative, and when he finally catches his breath and slows down his speech, he tells us his mother moved back home last month, she is in Guinea now, and everyone is safe.

Fear, if only for a few seconds, can paralyze you, make your heart pound in your chest as it solicits a powerful response of emotions, actions and thoughts. Multiply this by millions and you’ve captured the collective mindset of North America since Sept. 30 when Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Dallas after returning on Sept. 20 from Liberia. Since Duncan’s death, three other cases were brought back to North America as known cases – all aid workers – for treatment.

Ebola has infected us with a virus of fear, like no other. The graphic images of bleeding eyes, and the descriptive stories of patients hemorrhaging, lying row after row in shelter cots waiting to die in makeshift hospitals, were strewn across televisions for weeks. North Americans have called for everything from compassionate aid to militaristic controls of air space and borders. As of Nov. 3, Canada had donated more than $95 million to assist with everything from vaccine research to  humanitarian aid and personal protective equipment for health workers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tried to assure us in September and October that they believed they have the situation under control. But for some reason, the reassurances had not quelled the constant media attention and fear that enveloped Canadian and American emergency-response agencies as department after department, and city after city, rolled out their response and training plans for EVD.

When Dallas firefighters dressed in encapsulated hazmat suits and started cleaning out the apartment of Thomas Duncan live on CNN with helicopters circling the skies above, fire departments across Canada and the United States took a collective gasp and phones started to ring; you can imagine fire chiefs receiving phone calls from their municipal leaders asking how they would handle a similar situation.

Dr. John Embil, who is the head of the Infectious disease unit of Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, believes the media have overplayed the story; he says people need to understand that as of early November, the risk in North America was still miniscule.

“We really should be more concerned with the thousands who will die from influenza here at home,” Embil said in an interview. “Albeit, I see how the fear perpetuates when the mortality rates in Africa are 70 to 100 per cent in certain areas. The issue is understanding that the disease process in West Africa is working in a perfect storm of transmission. The risk here, compared to there, is very different, and while there are still unknowns as in how the [Dallas] nurses got sick, from a risk point of view it is exceptionally low.”

Closer to home in Winnipeg at the National Microbiology Laboratory – Canada’s only top Level-4 containment laboratory for handing diseases such as Ebola – work to prepare for possible outbreaks on home soil has been going on since the WHO started to declare Ebola a threat to world health back in August. Back then, no one in Canada was concerned, as most felt Ebola was someone else’s problem, until it landed in Dallas, pretty much on our doorstep.

Specialists in Winnipeg have been dealing with this outbreak for months; scientists from the national lab have regularly travelled to Africa’s outbreak regions to work and study, with detailed plans in place to deal with the returning scientists who have had possible exposures to the disease.

Dr. Rob Grierson, who is the medical director for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and an emergency-room physician by trade, believes the city and most of the country is prepared well.

“We’ve had plans in place in Winnipeg since the summertime, when scientists from our national virology lab started coming back from those affected areas,” Grierson said.

“We had to make sure safeguards were in place to protect them and the citizens, as well as their families. Now that there have been confirmed cases in North America, we’ve trained and tested our policies and were confident we are doing all we can do with what we know.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the country but I know my counterparts across the nation are in meetings and briefing sessions and we’re all taking a collaborative effort to do the absolute best we can.”

Those plans are, of course, the best-case scenario, but there are so many variables that can interfere with those protocols: the subjective nature of the incubation period of EVD of two to 21 days; the upcoming flu season; and the fact that infrastructure and policy development has thus far been reactive given that the WHO does not have one universal policy for dealing with many issues such as PPE and transport of infected individuals, and jurisdictional laws that can or cannot force a person into quarantine. The what if questions that firefighters love to ask have been flying around, and the lack of answers is forcing departments to spending money on whatever they can get their hands on to protect their workers. All you have to do is look at Twitter and Facebook to see how many different ways department are training and preparing.

Grierson couldn’t quantify how low the risk really is, but he provides crystal-clear data from Winnipeg’s 911 centre. Between the time the centre started screening calls for possible EVD cases and early November, there had been 4,439 calls to 911, with 1,427 highlighted for flu-like symptoms. Of the calls for flu-like symptoms, eight patients indicated a possible travel history to West Africa, or contact with a person who had possibly been there. After further consultation, none of the calls warranted enacting EVD procedures.

“If it does happen, where a suspected EVD case is present,” Grierson said, “we believe our plan is a good one and with the infrastructure of our hospital system our mortality rates should be significantly lower due to basic medical principles of keeping patients hydrated via IV fluids, using proper isolation rooms, supportive care, and mitigating blood pressure issues.”

Winnipeg has room for 10 EVD patients; like fire departments, hospitals are charged with planning for the worst.

Grierson believes the lack of infrastructure in the affected West African countries – primarily Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – is the major factor contributing to high mortality rates there.

“The hospitals are isolating all Ebola patients in the same ward or area,” he said, “when best-case practices would have each patient completely isolated.”

Dr. Renate Singh, who is the associate medical director of Manitoba Air Ambulance, says she believes EVD planning has been comprehensive and has included  many stakeholders.

Singh says there are challenges associated with moving an EVD patient in a fixed-wing or rotary aircraft.

“The PPE the CDC is recommending is for exposures of approximately an hour, so flying a patient in a small, enclosed space for several hours in close proximity to responders is an issue.

“Everyone is working well together to come up with plans and processes but the reality is there is know 100-per-cent way to remove the risk, and so many scenarios that have to be planned for.”  

While Canada has donated millions in relief funds, it wasn’t until EVD landed in North America that governments started to take the threat seriously.

According to The Globe and Mail, while Sierra Leone was in dire need of medical gloves and masks as the outbreak started to escalate in June, the federal government, through Health Canada, was selling these items at rock-bottom auction prices to those who then turned around and re-sold them for incredible profits to aid agencies that were trying to get the needed PPE to responders in Africa. The needed items were considered surplus in Canada and were put up for auction; eventually – once the government was made aware – the process was stopped.

Firefighters do what we do, because there is an attraction to the unknown and risks that have a chance of making a difference in someone else’s life; it does not matter what the hazard is, or how dire the situation.

The fear I felt for a mere 15 seconds was real, but it was dissolved by common sense and information. When I asked all three physicians interviewed for this story what firefighters could do to reduce their risks, they all said the same thing: follow your training and policies, learn how to use the PPE you are given, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn as much as you can.

Oh, and Dr. Embil says wash your hands and get the flu shot, because if we can go inside a burning building then we can certainly handle the fear of a little tiny needle.


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


Written by Tom Bremner
There are many components to good health. Maybe now – given the volume of recent suicides among first responders – is a good time to be open about how long we have been fooling each other and letting personal dislikes, jealously, personal attacks or negative actions keep us from being healthy.

Have we, as a fire service, created an ill work environment?  

We hear about mental illness and we understand that the cost of ignoring it can be high. No matter what the issue or challenge, we need to be there for each other.

We boast to our communities that as first responders we are protectors and caregivers, but sometimes we overlook the most important people around us – our own fellow firefighters and our companions with whom we spend time every day.

A personal tragedy in the mid ’90s changed my world forever. It has taken lots of communication, and strength and focus every day since then, to keep my personal health from crashing. I know many of you are in the same state. If it were not for my true friends, supporters, colleagues and professional help, I may not have the opportunity to write this column.  

In a matter of minutes (or less) our world can be rocked; we never know when that could happen. We need to open up about the realities of our jobs or volunteer commitments or whatever connections you have to the first-responder business. Yes, you might get a few weird looks, or become red-faced the first time you open up about the internal darkness that you have experienced at some point in your life. However, remember what the alternative could be if you do not open up to someone. We all share in the cost if we do not start helping each other.

Getting to know each other in a positive manner without crossing personal lines is critical. Leadership, caring and trust go a long way. Being that person with whom people can connect and chat openly might be all an affected firefighter needs. We all have heard that sometimes the best help is just to listen, no advice required; just be there and open our ears and minds.

If we do not connect and open up about this unhealthy darkness we will pay a huge price personally and organizationally (we already have, haven’t we?). If we are willing to take the first step and start talking about mental-health issues, it might surprise us and our teams how much talking can help.

Maybe we hide our realities out of fear that showing personal weakness will limit opportunities or promotions. Finding a trustworthy person and process is paramount.

If you have taken a positive approach toward mental illness, well done!  If not, try connecting with someone who has.

We have created a very tense, and in some cases a non-respectful, mistrusting culture that we have to change. Let’s agree to take the first steps toward being a healthier organization. If we do not take control of our own health and wellness we, and the future generations, will be the losers. Let’s find ways to start being internally honest, rebuild trust and connect openly.  

Living a life or going to a job that is painful every day is sad and very unfortunate. In many cases, those who struggle inside cannot find a way to get out of, or change, the way they feel. There are success stories; we just have to be strong enough to ask, be supported and know that we can trust the process. Without this support we have destroyed or lost our greatest asset – a team of caring and honest people.   

The world is changing quickly and the support process needs to modernize. Creating professional partnerships and safe spaces saves many lives; failing to do so causes loss of life. Take the challenge. Start building partnerships and start the discussions at the next crew, officer or department meeting about how mental illness is creating a sad history for us. We can make a difference but we need to adjust our personal beliefs and fears.

It is time to talk, and talk honestly. We are looked upon as one of the strongest, most caring organizations within our communities. Let’s make sure we deal with our problems head-on. If we all commit to this we can say that from coast to coast we are a team, building a success story that will keep the process rolling in a healthier way.

Our mental health affects every aspect of our lives so let’s value it and take care of it.

This topic will not go away. To be fearful or punished for asking for help is wrong. It’s up to all of us to take that breath and think how we address the demons inside so many first responders. Take whatever steps are necessary to help to create healthy minds, healthier lifestyles, less stress, and fewer pains and fears.


Tom Bremner is the fire chief for Salt Spring Island, B.C. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Written by Gord Schreiner
I recently had the honour of visiting the Canadian Fallen Firefighter Monument in Ottawa. I must say I was overwhelmed and filled with emotions. My passion has always been about trying to prevent (#stopbad) firefighters from getting hurt or killed in the line of duty.

In April 2006, a visiting 52-year-old firefighter suffered a fatal heart attack while attending a live-fire training exercise at our fire training centre. For us, in Comox, this changed everything.

Before this tragic event we treated our firefighters as most other fire departments did. We worked them hard and gave them a water break every once in a while. Now we have a very formal firefighter-rehab policy. Now, at our training centre, students are assessed before they start training and if they don’t meet some very strick medical protocols they are not allowed to participate in the training. We find that about one in 10 students does not meet the accepted medical standards. During training, students are constantly assessed and if they fall outside of acceptable limits their training ends at that time, for that day. Also, all of our Comox firefighters have their blood pressure checked before our weekely training sessions. Anyone with a pressure above our acceptable standard (160/100) does not participate in strenous physical activities.

On our fire ground, we have adopted a simlar approach; after approximately 30 minutes of strenous work, the firefighters are sent to a rehab area and rehabilited and assessed; if they fall outside of these acceptable limits they are not allowed to continue with their strenous duties (regardless of how bad the fire is). Rehab is now a function of every emergency and training incident we run.

We researched what others were doing and put together a rehab program that works for us. Our program includes the basics, such as hydration and foods, and also includes medical monitoring of pulse, blood pressure, temperature, oxygen and carbon-monoxide saturations. Added equipment includes misting fans, rehab chairs, core-cooler vests, automatic blood-pressure cuffs, CO/Ox meters, coolers, and towels. We also added more drinks and food on our fire trucks.

We have also put water bottles in the cabs of our fire apparatuses so our firefighters can hydrate on the way to incidents as well as during and after. This simple little step can greatly increase your firefighters’ safety. A complete rehab program should include medical monitoring during all incidents. This is a function we have taken on at the fire department operational level. Many fire departments use their local EMS service to provide this function, but we wanted to take our program to the next level. Because we are a small community, we can not always get EMS to attend our incidents; and if we do, they might leave with a patient from the incident, a firefighter needing advanced medical attention, or leave to go to another incident. EMS personnel often leave scenes while we are still doing mop-up or salvage, but rehab is just as important at this time and having our own program ensures that rehab is present and active. We include this very important function with our staging area and management; rehab is run by firefighters, for firefighters – that way we control it, but we still request that EMS stand by in case a firefighter requires more advance treatment.

This kind of rehab program, of course, takes additional resources which could be provided using mutual aid or other members who may no longer be fit enough to provide suppression duties.

We have also added a whole new focus to firefighter fitness. Not only do our firefighters and their families get free fitiness passes at our community fitness centre, but we have also added a firefighter-only fitness centre at our fire station that is accessible 24 hours a day. In addition, we have added fitness to our regular practice schedule; an entire company of firefighters can go to the fitness centre during a practice session.

We have seen some of our firefighters change their diets and increase their fitness because they want to ensure they can pass the rehab protocols and, more importantly, stay alive.

Fire fighting is an extremely challenging job. Firefighters (including chief officers) need to be in very good physical and mental condition to preform their duties.

We are happy to share any and all of the rehab protocols that we have put together.

P.S. This 57-year-old chief is heading to the gym right now!


Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C., where he also manages the Comox Fire Training Centre. 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 @comoxfire


Written by Elias Markou
You are exhausted. You don’t feel in sync with your body and mind. You’re eating way more than you should. Your sleep is disturbed and you get far less than you need. You are stressed. How do you change that?
Written by Elias Markou
Firefighters have a lot to think about, and until recently their health was not necessarily a top priority.
Written by Mike Vilneff
Have you ever opened your mouth and said something that you later regretted?
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