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#BellLetsTalk – Change Agent: February 2015

If you do not have your health, what do you have? In the November issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, I raised the issue of work-related mental illness in the fire and emergency services. Your responses have been overwhelming. It seems I touched a nerve – I think in a good way – for many. The next step is learning how, as fire-service leaders, we can take action to help ourselves and our colleagues who are suffering or lost.

February 4, 2015
By Tom Bremner

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Firefighters often feel they can tackle situations by themselves or within their own services, but mental illness is one situation that requires a total overhaul in approach.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the work-related mental illness most often suffered by fire-service members. For some firefighters, PTSD is still a forbidden topic and they will not face its reality despite visible effects both on the job and at home. Some experience overwhelming sadness and feelings of loneliness or being lost. Many suffer from nightmares. Some become argumentative, aggressive, fearful, or physically ill. Some seek solace in alcohol or drugs.

Take a look at our old macho culture in the fire service and begin with a turnaround in your own mindset. The fire service needs to start talking about PTSD openly and stop allowing the infliction of pain or disrespect – sometimes through nastiness and/or negative humour. Then, and only then, will open communication and real healing begin.

The next step is to learn more about mental illness and PTSD to avoid any incorrect preconceived outcomes while remaining opened-minded and professionally caring. PTSD is not normally a fire-service leader’s field of expertise and so he or she must first become educated. There are many articles and books available and I urge you to read some of these. Perhaps consult your own doctor or another professional who can help you to understand PTSD and how to deal with it in relation to your members and perhaps even yourself.

Leaders must get the ball rolling on treatment of PTSD, but they cannot do it alone and that means asking for help. There are many supportive professionals in the mental-health world that are there to help. Accepting that professionals can help you demonstrates to your members that they, too, can accept help from others.

Of course, this means money is involved to pay for the support process you will need. In the past five years, my department has partnered with several different professional experts in the mental-health field to offer professional help that is not within the fire service. This removes the potential for gossip that can occur when one member speaks in confidence with another about personal concerns. Confidentiality and trust are paramount considerations in this approach.

Building a team of professional counsellors takes time, funds and leadership. Not every counsellor is a good fit for every member, so it is important to have multiple options available. Clear principles and ground rules for both the support persons and the membership clients are vital to the success of the partnership.

It is time to for you to invest in your members to help them be healthier, better firefighters. If you do not already have funds available for this kind of health care in your budget, you need to find it as soon as possible and get things started. Meet with experts within mental health to discuss funding options; they may know what is available or offer to research possible grants or private investments. Most municipalities have an employee assistance program that may cover some treatment options. The more time you invest in researching, the more you will uncover in terms of funding options available in your area.

Within the past decade I have had several retired fire-service members arrive at my office door looking for help with the pain, nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD they have been suffering, sometimes for years. These pleas for help were heart-wrenching wakeup calls for me. I remember thinking that we cannot drop the ball on this. I am proud to say these retired members now have access to the support and resources they so badly needed to ease their pain and distress.

Like many other professions, we need to learn to talk more openly and set the stage for a healthier fire and emergency service. One more suicide or one more failure to help a member asking for help is unacceptable. Manage wisely and carefully for a long-term investment in our most valuable resource: our members. Raise awareness of PTSD and how to minimize or avoid it. Don’t just think about it or pass the buck. It’s time for change and real action. Are you up to the challenge?


Tom Bremner is the former fire chief for Salt Spring Island, B.C. 


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