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Mental health identified as priority

Over the last several years, the recognition of the importance of psychological health and safety in the fire service and all emergency services has risen to the point at which there is consensus that it is a top priority. Many fire, police and emergency-medical services across Canada have taken steps to increase awareness of the issue and have created plans to address the risk that the nature of these professions poses to emergency responders.

February 22, 2017
By Ken McMullen
Fire departments across Canada importance of psychological health and safety in the fire service

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) has taken steps on behalf of all fire services, and the Calgary Fire Department is implementing a multi-faceted mental-wellness model that may serve as a model for other departments.

The consensus that it is time to act was demonstrated in September 2015 when the CAFC and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) convened the inaugural meeting of the firefighter mental-wellness advisory group to discuss the need to address the mental health of Canadian firefighters. The meeting was attended by representatives of the CAFC board of directors and national advisory council, the IAFF, the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and staff from CAFC, IAFF and the Calgary Fire Department.  The result was the “National Firefighters’ Mental Wellness Roadmap Strategy,” a long-term initiative to identify the tools required to support the fire service in the recognition, prevention, intervention and treatment of mental-health issues facing firefighters in Canada. This work has begun, with a research agenda encompassing policy, the spectrum of prevention, intervention and follow-up, and the gaps in research and data collection related to firefighter mental health.

As this work proceeds, many fire services across Canada have begun initiatives to address the mental well-being of their members; some have adopted one or more educational programs while others have created programs tailored to their specific needs. While there are a variety of initiatives underway, chosen to meet the needs and resources of different organizations, the Calgary Fire Department has developed a three-year psychological health and safety strategy.

In 2015, the department committed to work toward alignment with the voluntary workplace psychological health and safety standard, CAN/CSA Z1003-13/BNQ9700-803/2013 (the standard). The standard is designed to encourage organizations to apply the same rigour to psychological health and safety that they do to physical health and safety.

Like the CAFC, Calgary’s first step was research consisting of four components:

  • an audit of existing policies, procedures and resources that support psychological health and safety;
  • a search for current knowledge about mental illness and injury in firefighters;
  • an employee survey (Guarding Minds at Work) to determine perception of psychological health and safety;
  • adaptation and piloting of a mental-health literacy and resiliency training program, Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR).

The audit included both Calgary Fire Department-specific and City of Calgary policies related to psychological health and safety and a variety of resources available to staff through the City of Calgary’s employee and family assistance program, the Calgary Fire Department Wellness Centre, and the community at large. This list is extensive but still allowed us to identify areas for improvement.

The existing knowledge about mental health, injury and illness specific to the profession of fire fighting is limited but the information about these concerns in the general Canadian population demonstrates that it is a significant issue. Given the highly stressful nature of the firefighter’s job, we proceeded with the assumption that they are at least as vulnerable, and probably more so, than members of the general population.  

The employee survey used, Guarding Minds at Work (GM@W) is a Canadian tool developed by researchers at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction. It is formed around 13 factors that influence psychological health and safety in the workplace, which are also part of the structure of the standard. We used the results of this survey (completed by 25 per cent of staff) to set our first priorities.  

The pilot and evaluation of the R2MR program demonstrated four important things:

  • firefighters feel strongly that they need education on this topic that is very customized to them;
  • most firefighters consider this an important topic but know little about it or how to access help;
  • in the Calgary Fire Department, the uniformed members preferred to take this training only with other uniformed members;
  • given the lean operating conditions in which we work, a highly flexible delivery model is necessary.

The next step was to take all of the information from our research and develop a short-term strategic plan to the end of 2018. The plan is structured around the standard and includes training, communication, policy, and collaboration across divisions such as occupational health and safety, disability management and human resources.

We are now in the implementation phase. Over the next year we will:

  • deliver the R2MR training to all members of the floor;
  • work with our city counterparts to identify and pilot training for non-uniform staff and to lay the groundwork for a deliberate shift to a culture that supports psychological health and safety;
  • work across Calgary Fire Department divisions to find opportunities to collaborate and support each other to build and reinforce a psychologically healthy and safe workplace;
  • continue to improve the delivery of critical incident stress management where required;
  • support the IAFF Local 255 as it launches a peer-support program;
  • participate in awareness/education events such as suicide prevention and anti-bullying;
  • continue to reach out to other fire services to share what we have learned, benefit from their experiences and look for opportunities to work together.  

The Calgary Fire Department is fortunate to be a large-city firefighting organization and, the economic realities of public service notwithstanding, has access to financial resources that smaller departments do not. Calgary also has the advantage of having an experienced health promotion professional, Nancy Snowball, to lead our psychological health and safety strategy. For the many organizations that do not have the budget to do this work in-house, the work undertaken by the CAFC on behalf of all Canadian fire services is critical. The gaps in support for firefighter psychological health is not something that can be fixed with one education program, one campaign or one policy – it requires a long-term strategy for cultural change and continuous improvement.

The statistics are familiar: one in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue this year. Over our lifetimes, nearly half of us will face such a challenge, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. For those of us who confront trauma as a regular part of our work life, the risk is likely to be higher. The good news is that we can all do something about it. Just as with physical health and safety, it is everyone’s responsibility to be vigilant, to look out for each other and to make sure we are part of the solution, every  day.


Ken McMullen is an assistant deputy chief with the Calgary Fire Department. Contact him at ken.mcmullen@calgary.ca


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