Fire Fighting in Canada

Learning how to check-in with oneself

October 30, 2019
By Dave Balding

I recently, with immense pride and no small amount of humility, marked the beginning of my 35th year in our fire service. Reflecting on this milestone is especially poignant for me at this juncture in my career. I have learned much over these years about the profession I treasure. Enhancing our operational skills, both tactical and strategic continues – something I embrace. Moreover, the learning includes what were considered ancillary skills such as looking after our most valued resource, our members. Leadership and all its facets (passions of mine) are so very essential at every level in every department. Looking after each other and ourselves is gaining awareness and importance as another critical fundamental. Thankfully, elements such as hypertension, cardiac health, physical conditioning, obesity, substance abuse, cancer prevention and adequate rest are now front and centre. These are interconnected with another piece of the wellness equation — mental health. Education and awareness are working to erase the stigma around the effects some of us endure as a result of our chosen profession. Mental wellness is beginning to garner the attention it deserves.

We in the fire service are doing a better job today of looking after our own than we ever have. We inherently watch out for each other on and off the fire ground. We watch for trends in our colleagues’ moods and take notice of decaying attitudes and performance. We are keenly aware of changes in social behavior. Dependent on circumstances, we may check in with our peer or exercise some other form of support. In short, we have each other’s backs.

If there’s such a thing as a gradual epiphany, I’m having one. It is around checking in with ourselves, more specifically myself. This may be old hat to some and a new notion to others; after all we are firefighters to help other people. We are inclined to become absorbed by what we do very well; helping others in their worst hour and our peers on an ongoing basis. The importance of being self-aware and doing in-depth self-check-ins regularly is coming home to me. It may also be one of the most challenging concepts as I take time to learn about me. Sure, I paid attention to fitness, diet and other superficial aspects of my health but there were areas left unaddressed until very recently. Perhaps a part of why is the ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude that I sport. Another part is certainly a lack of connectivity with self. The result has been a trend that has impacted my fire department and colleagues, my family and me, in short everyone close to me. There is good news; it’s never too late to grow inwards as well as outwards by cultivating self-awareness. Tools such as counselling and practicing mindfulness continue to help. I view this much like a significant fire event, rather than go it alone, I called for mutual aid – quite a set of resources. The pre-flight safety briefing that I pay attention to whenever I fly comes to mind as passengers are instructed to don their own oxygen mask before assisting others. This example is analogous to taking care of ourselves first to be the best fire service leaders possible. While it may sound self-serving, ‘it begins with me’ truly is a necessity to ensure a foundation from which we can be our absolute best in all respects. The notion of I’m a firefighter, I don’t have feelings’ is and always has been out of touch. In fact, a well known therapist, Virginia Satir, proposes our actions and behaviours are predicated on our feelings, perceptions, expectations and yearnings.

Our ability to perform to our utmost abilities at emergency scenes in order to help the public we serve and continue being a reliable and vital part of our department is contingent on our taking responsibility for a number of self care and wellness elements. We as humans are incredibly resilient – to a point. Carrying on oblivious to challenges in our lives isn’t a successful long-term strategy. We’re fortunate to have those around us to illuminate our blind spots and bring noticed concerns to our attention — don’t ignore them. An ‘I got this’ approach is a disservice to everyone beginning with ourselves. The goal of wellness has several dimensions; intellectual, emotional and physical are prime among them. It is considered a state of well-being to address all these aspects, far above and beyond the simple absence of maladies or infirmity.


Look after yourself, in every respect. You and those around you depend on it.

Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB.

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