By Les Karpluk
Aug. 27, 2015, Whitehorse - I was anticipating attending the 23rd Annual Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs conference because it’s great to meet old friends and, with the conference being in Whitehorse, I was really looking forward to attending the sessions held in the Whitehorse fire station. This year’s theme was Saving Those Who Save Others, with the focus on mental health.
One of the benefits of speaking at conferences is that I get to sit in on other educational sessions. The conference committee had Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavior Health Alliance, speak on firefighter suicide and retiring from the fire service. Jeff brings incredible credibility to his presentations; he retired this year from the Illinois fire service and while working full time he took his master’s in counselling and became a licensed professional counsellor.
It was great to see Jeff again and listen to his two sessions. I first met Jeff at a conference last year in Lethbridge and immediately picked up on his passion for educating the fire service about firefighter suicides. One of the things that Jeff stressed is that firefighters need to be involved in their employee assistance programs by getting the counsellors involved in the profession. Simple things such as ride-alongs and getting familiar with the fire service culture can make a big difference for the credibility of the counsellor and helping the counsellor understand the profession. He also suggests that firefighters and fire departments find out what resources are available at a local level and create a resource list that is available for firefighters – he referred to this as the fire department’s mental health pre-plan.
In Jeff’s first session, he gave a high-level view of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and firefighter suicide. I knew three firefighters who committed suicide in the last three years; I suspect this is why I found myself taking a lot of notes.
What is bothersome is that firefighter suicide is hard to track because it’s not something that people want to talk about, nor is it something that is officially tracked. Jeff collects data and information through surveys and direct calls from family members across North America of firefighters who have committed suicide or attempted to, and he uses this information as a tool to educate the profession to help prevent firefighter suicide; when Jeff starts rattling off numbers he definitely has the room’s attention. I wonder if there is some way that the Tema Conter Memorial Foundation here in Canada and FBHA could team up and share information and develop programs?
I was able to spend a few hours with Jeff talking about our careers and the fire service and how the profession has bought into the brainwashing stigma of asking for help. It is getting better but during lunch one day Jeff told me it’s still difficult in the United States to get support to educate the fire service about suicide prevention because it’s just not a sexy topic to talk about. I found it disheartening to hear that procuring funding support for his foundation, from U.S.-based sources, is challenging because even today there are organizations that do not want to provide financial support for firefighter suicide awareness.
When Jeff said, “if you have been in this job you have post-traumatic stress,” I just about fell out of my chair. I was to give the keynote at the closing banquet and in the last four weeks while writing and rehearsing my presentation, many of my bad calls just seemed to pop into my head.
In his second presentation, Jeff talked about retirement. This was an interesting topic because he has data of 142 retired firefighter suicides in North America and what is particularly bothersome is 35 of these firefighters took their lives within the first weeks of their retirements. This was a very interesting session; many firefighters find themselves lost when they retire and have not prepared themselves for the day they leave the profession. Jeff even emphasized the fact that retirement from a volunteer fire department can impact a firefighter the same way it does a career firefighter. I like the fact that Jeff suggested that an individual must prepare for retirement years in advance and that retirement from the fire service doesn’t mean you can’t start another career or begin another phase of your life.
After being in the profession for more than three decades, I have to admit that I have talked to my share of politicians who couldn’t care less about the fire service. What was refreshing for me was that Yukon’s Minister of Community Services Currie Dixon was not only visible during the conference, he was engaged. It was refreshing to see a politician take a real interest in the profession and when Dixon spoke at the closing banquet, I was convinced that he is truly interested in helping and doing his part. It was a nice breath of fresh air and I appreciated Minister Dixon making it a point to thank me for what I said in my keynote.
The best part of presenting at this conference was the fact that when I was writing my speech, I did so with the hope that there would be some key political players in the room. There were some things I felt they needed to hear about the great men and women who unselfishly give of themselves to protect others and who better to say these things then the outsider who doesn’t live in the community?
Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. He is a graduate of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Administration and Fire Service Leadership programs. Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes