Fire Fighting in Canada

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Putting mental health first: Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service signs partnership with Wounded Warriors Canada

June 16, 2023 
By Brittani Schroeder

Photo credit: City of Vaughan

Firefighters work night and day to keep our communities safe. They make other citizens their priority, and on June 15, the City of Vaughan made firefighters their priority. Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS), Wounded Warriors Canada and the Vaughan Professional Fire Fighters Association entered into an agreement to further support Vaughan’s firefighters and their families.

Fire Fighting in Canada was able to attend the official signing of this new partnership at the Joint Operations Centre and speak with the people who made this idea a reality.

Fire Chief Andrew Zvanitajs opened the event by welcoming all who were in attendance, then asked everyone to stand in a moment of silence for the firefighter who lost his life in the Municipality of Bluewater earlier in the week, and the York Regional Police officer who was seriously injured in a collision the day before. He stated that these two events highlighted the extreme hazards that first responders face on a daily basis.

“Every day when the VFRS staff report to duty, they put other peoples’ needs before their own, whether they’re taking calls, dispatching members, investigating a fire, or responding to an operations incident. They are committed to the public’s well-being and safety,” said Chief Zvanitajs. “This type of work takes a significant toll on the responders’ mental health.”

This year is the 10th anniversary of Wounded Warriors Canada. The organization initially began as Canadian veterans came home from Afghanistan in 2013; there was quite an observed rise in “invisible injuries”: operational stress injuries, PTSD and more. Several years later, Wounded Warriors Canada started serving first responders. “Trauma is trauma, and the downstream effects of stress injuries are the same once they take hold. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran, a firefighter, a police officer or EMS. We knew it was long overdue,” said Scott Maxwell, Executive Director of Wounded Warriors Canada. Wounded Warriors Canada has now partnered with over 70 Canadian agencies, from fire and EMS, to police, corrections officers and the military.

Maxwell continued, “If you go into any fire station, you’ll see a gym where members can work on their physical fitness; however, psychological fitness has been neglected for too long. It’s important to note that a member will never have to pay for any support they receive. Select services and training are funded by the employer, which is important, because the employer needs to have some skin in the game—they need to be investing in the psychological health and wellness of their people.”

“I’ve spent 28 years in the fire service. None of us know if trauma comes from 20 years of small incidents, or just one really big incident.” – Fire Chief Andrew Zvanitajs

The road to yesterday’s partnership signing started with VFRS’ Peer Support Team, which is comprised of members of the Vaughan Professional Fire Fighters Association, firefighters, dispatchers and fire inspectors, who are there to assist one another in times of need. The Peer Support Team brought the partnership idea to Chief Zvanitajs, who in turn brought it to Council earlier this year. Council approved the partnership on March 21.

Andrew Anthony, who has been president of the Vaughan Professional Fire Fighters Association for just over a year, knows that this partnership signing is just the beginning. “Bringing in this mental health education and resources from Wounded Warriors Canada to our members today is just the start – it’s something that will only continue to grow and become the norm. This will eventually be something our members will automatically turn to when they need it,” he said. He knows that he and his team can rely on Wounded Warriors Canada to support their members, as an addition to the benefits they already receive from the city.

Anthony continued, “Partnering with Wounded Warriors Canada is so important, because we need the additional support for our members who are dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues. Without these resources, members would be left to deal with these issues on their own. Wounded Warriors Canada is just another shoulder to lean on.”

In a one-on-one conversation with Fire Fighting in Canada, Chief Zvanitajs shared that this partnership means a lot to him, personally, because his father and best friends are veterans. “They served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they suffered, and they’ve come out the other side because they had access to programs like this. That is what I want to give to the VFRS staff—I want to empower them to know where to look for help if they are struggling, or they see someone else who might need help.”

He continued, “I’ve spent 28 years in the fire service. None of us know if trauma comes from 20 years of small incidents, or just one really big incident. What we do know is that we need support when we’re going through it. The best description I’ve heard about mental health was in our lives, we are always dragging a piece of luggage with us. How heavy it is, is up to us. Sometimes, we may need to ask for help to carry it. That is what Wounded Warriors Canada is here for—they’re here to help.”

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