Fire Fighting in Canada

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Releasing trauma

There are ways to build resilience through re-visiting trauma with conscious awareness

August 31, 2020
By David Gillis and Ruth Lamb

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Co-author David Gillis is a retired volunteer lieutenant formerly with Squamish Fire Rescue in British Columbia.

In the June 2017 edition of Fire Fighting in Canada, Ruth Lamb and I (David Gillis) wrote an article called “Building Resilience: Core principles to overcoming PTSD”. We wrote about an incident where my mind-body reaction to a traumatic event had changed. It seemed as if I had processed that event differently. I let the trauma enter and pass through me rather than trying to avoid it or let it get stuck inside like many others, adding to the stack of my unprocessed previous traumatic events. I took myself off auto-pilot and started to let compassion and wisdom guide my reflection instead of judgement and criticism. We have written another article to further address how this was achieved as I share my experience as a now retired lieutenant and Ruth articulates her perspective as a registered nurse PhD and Strategic Resilience consultant.

Ruth: We know from the research and our own personal experience that trauma is defined and processed uniquely by each of us. Trauma is real. Trauma deserves respect. And, the best way to restore a healthy resilience (versus the resilience of toxic denial) is to name the issue, and the accompanying emotions, with open-minded awareness. What is more, name what this mix of onslaught is doing to your vitality, your cells, your general physical health and your mood. Then, with kindness towards yourself, start the releasing process. David has given an example of his personal practice for releasing stress and trauma. He is no longer stacking trauma and later suffering the bite-back.

David: To stay resilient during my tenure in the fire service, I had to transition from the role of hands-on reactive firefighter/first responder to hands-on observer/reflector officer. Now I find myself making a similar shift from reaction to observation and reflection in regard to many levels (past and present) of trauma exposures. I have become more consciously aware of myself being an ‘informed witness’ of the effect that trauma has had on my whole being.

When responding to a call, I’m acknowledging and processing radio updates, being mindful of weather, road conditions and traffic, and reflecting on the experience, expertise, and skill level of the crew. I’m also checking my recall of previous similar events to help formulate a plan of attack and deployment of crew and equipment required. Then there’s me: how am I doing?

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I’ve checked everything and everybody else, but have I checked me? What observations and reflections have I made in regard to myself? Am I calm or agitated? Is there adrenaline and cortisol flooding through my system? What about my heart rate, blood pressure and level of anxiety? Where am I breathing from (chest or belly)? How about the knot in my stomach? Is my game-face on and my armour up? Am I in survival mode scanning my memory banks and re-visiting past traumas before we’re even on-scene?

I now have a greater awareness of the adrenaline and anxiety levels within myself and how that may be affecting the crew. This has aided in my ability to lead well and achieve the best outcome along with helping to ensure that we all return home physically and mentally intact.

Ruth: David is living his new conscious awareness and asking the right questions. He is in witness mode and active firefighter mode simultaneously. He will now know which micro-practice is best for this emergency moment and those micro-resilience practices will keep him at maximum mental and physical peak throughout this call.

David: As an officer I’ve had to make the dynamic transition from reactor to observer and reflector in order to perform my duties as expected on the fire ground, at the medical calls, the motor vehicle incidents, and the myriad of fire/rescue related calls we attend. To build resilience and continue healing and recovering from trauma exposure, I’ve also had to make a similar ‘whole-person’ transition with mind, body, and spirit.

Through breathing practices, being mindful, learning how to ground myself, calm my nervous system and become more centered, aligned and resourced, I’ve been able to reclaim the ability to start having depth to my feelings again (physically with my bioenergy or vitality, emotionally, mentally and spiritually). At times, this has been an extremely moving experience. I’ve started to acknowledge a deep longing for knowledge that I didn’t know existed, or had long forgotten. One awareness, for example, would be me continuing to read this article instead of flipping to the next one and thinking, “I’m okay, I don’t need that crap!”

I feel that the next two stages (not necessarily linear) of transition and transformation (after reaction, observation and reflection) are acceptance and change. Having the ability to witness and accept that I have not been the one driving ‘the bus’ has helped put me back in the driver’s seat and kept the bus out of the ditch. Along with the strength and desire to make changes, such as ‘breaking the cycle’ of negative reaction to stimulus, and adopting practices that calm my nervous system, I believe I am on my way to being healthier, both mentally and physically.

The full-body armour I used to wear was not only protecting me from outside exposure, harm, and attack from trauma, it was also keeping me from true innermost self-expression, sharing, and connection, not just with others, but also with myself. I had to become more of the person I used to be when I felt safe, not anxious, defensive, and numb, never trusting or feeling safe enough to let my emotional guard down.

Ruth: It is normal to armour ourselves when we do not have the trauma first aid tools that take us through the immediate emergency and then provide us with the resilience practices that re-code and re-stabilize our nervous system, and nurture our whole-person well-being after the call and ongoing in our lives. This ‘normal’ is a dangerous normal. But one inherent to first responder roles if, indeed, resilience practices are not built into all training and professional development programs.

David: Re-visiting trauma comes in many forms: flashbacks, sharing ‘war-stories’, news items, presentations, memories, roadside markers, incident locations, sensory input (all five senses, especially odours), debriefs, training exercises, or the revolving door in my head. There can be triggers with the next call, or even from trauma exposures that go all the way back to childhood. The list is almost endless.

There was a time when the idea of letting my guard down and removing my emotional armour was a very scary thought. I was like a very effective machine on auto-pilot, nothing got to me. During healing and recovery I was asked to create a trauma history, which involved having my butt kicked all the way back to childhood. That was a long journey.

When someone said to me, “…tell me about your childhood…” I simply wanted to check the box that says “…mine was good, how was yours…?” If fear and anger, guilt and shame, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, or just being a jerk, are your usual go-to reactions when triggered, now I’m thinking “…mine was good, how was yours…?” is not the best answer.

I needed to create an awareness of reactions that came from an unfamiliar place, my unconscious response to stimulus that conflicted with my true mind, body, and spirit nature (Self). In firefighter language that meant I had to get myself together and my head and heart right but, yes, I know, much easier said than done.

Just prior to my retirement from active duty in July 2018, I responded to a fentanyl overdose call. I believe this event was yet another turning point in my journey of healing and recovery from trauma exposure and my new conscious awareness. Paramedics were already on-scene and had the victim/patient conscious but in obvious distress. Our function was mostly to aid in packaging, removal from the residence, and loading for transport. During that process I spoke to the victim, trying to connect with him and offer support.

Once back in the rescue truck it was my habit to check in with the crew and ask if everyone was okay, but this time it was them asking me, if I was okay. I paused for a moment and said, “I’m not sure.” Then they asked if I knew the victim. Again, I paused and said, “Yes, he’s one of my co-workers.” Such is life as a volunteer firefighter/first responder in a smaller community.

I thought for a long time about what was different with that call. What did my crew see in me, my actions and my body language, that had them showing concern for my situation and asking if I was okay? Had they witnessed an opening in my armour?

Ruth: Let’s address the armouring. There are many types of armouring. Yours is unique to you as David’s is to David. Physical armouring creates the tension bands or other tissue aberrations that lead to stiffness, pain, dysfunction and later, potential pathology. Emotional armouring often leads to shrinking of our mood continuum; we are irritable, we are numb, not happy, not creative. Or we get stuck complaining or angry or resentful, or in some other depletion state. Our bioenergy or vitality is low, or we have entered a brief hyperactive push state that cannot be upheld for long. Then comes the fatigue that does not go away easily, even with a good night’s sleep. When mentally armored we ruminate and forget to take a higher view and actually problem-solve (perhaps along multiple vectors) so real issues are addressed. We must not forget the spiritual, or heart-centered repercussions of bearing-witness each day to all the community brings in each call. To be present, active and engaged, and to follow the correct procedures, and as well stay human and not spiritually armoured, is a challenge. We must have the right tools to live well through this career offering we have gifted to our society.

David: While we continue to build our personal trauma-first-aid tool kits and increase our knowledge, awareness, and understanding of how exposure to trauma (past, present, and future) affects the mind, body, and spirit of firefighter/first responders, we will become better caregivers to ourselves and to others.


David Gillis is a retired volunteer lieutenant with the Squamish Fire Rescue in British Columbia. David can be reached at dgillis512@gmail.com. Ruth Lamb is a registered nurse PhD and a consultant with Strategic Resilience. Ruth can be reached at ruthlamb2050@gmail.com.


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