Fire Fighting in Canada

Q&A: Kathryn Sinden on firefighter mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

June 23, 2020 
By Brieanna Charlebois

Firefighters are often afraid to ask for help with mental health problems. Discussing mental health in the fire service is not easy

The Canadian Institute of Health Research awarded Kathryn Sinden, an Assistant Professor in Kinesiology at Lakehead University, a $49,968 grant to spend six months developing resources to support the mental health of firefighters working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Associate Editor Brieanna Charlebois in conversation with Kathryn Sinden:

Why did you decide to apply for this grant and study mental health of firefighters during COVID-19?

I have been doing research in the fire sector for almost 10 years and have a 3+ year research partnership working directly with Thunder Bay Fire Rescue. We have been conducting a series of projects that aim to develop evidence-based solutions to improve firefighter physical and mental health. The last couple of years our research has been focused on identifying relationships between critical incident exposure and mental health disorders including post-traumatic stress. As well, we are reviewing effectiveness of various mitigation strategies including critical incident debriefing. This funding call was timely as we were in the process of evaluating literature and resources to support firefighter mental health during COVID-19.

Why do you feel firefighters are a main concern during the pandemic? 

COVID-19 has changed the way everyone works and interacts. Our first responders including firefighters are often first on scene and are often called on to provide immediate, often life-saving services that increase their exposure to transferable diseases. The pandemic has increased firefighters’ concerns regarding potential disease transference from patients, among coworkers and subsequently to their family. Firefighters experience higher levels of mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress injury, compared to the general public; the unique exposures associated with working during COVID-19 increase their risk of experiencing mental health conditions.

How did the SARS epidemic inform this project? 

Recommendations to support firefighter mental health were made subsequent to SARS as well as other heightened trauma events (i.e., 9/11) and are informing the methodological approach used in our current project.

What is your main goal of the project?

The primary goal is to identify the best, evidence-based approach for managing firefighter mental health both in and out of times of heightened exposure, such as a pandemic. We are currently reviewing and evaluating that literature as well as other resources provided to firefighters to ensure that they are contextually relevant as well as evidence-based. Firefighters have a unique trauma exposure profile and understanding the best way to treat and manage that exposure needs to be evidence-based which means that it needs to be supported by strong scientific methods.

What do you expect or hope to find?

I hope that there is a clear direction that we can provide to firefighters to support their mental health needs.

We are a magazine for firefighters and fire chiefs – Is there anything you think they would find particularly interesting or should know about this type of research?

This research is important because it will reflect on the strategies commonly used in fire services and evaluate their effectiveness. We also plan to evaluate other bodies of literature that speak to evidence-based strategies for managing complex mental health conditions and hope to integrate that with our findings that will be specific to the firefighter sector.

Anything else you deem important to note?

I want to thank the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for funding this important work; I would also like to thank my research partner, Thunder Bay Fire Rescue and the Thunder Bay Professional Firefighters Association as well as the wider FIREWELL community for providing ongoing support of this research. Together we can create evidence-based solutions to improve firefighter health and wellbeing so they too can return home safely to their families, as their service to our communities allows us to do every day.


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