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Change Agent: November 2014

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 tbremner@saltspringfire.com


November 4, 2014
By Tom Bremner

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