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Volunteer Vision May 2017: PTSD awareness could create new recruitment challenges

Our job is tough. Responding to emergencies takes a toll on our bodies, minds and souls. But it is only recently that we have begun to consider how the stressful, life-saving work of first responders can impact our mental well-being.

April 19, 2017 
By Vince Mackenzie

Discussions and awareness about mental health have encouraged fire departments to develop much-needed strategies to handle the emotional challenges faced by individuals in our profession. But this increased awareness of firefighter mental-health challenges is also having an effect on the population’s impression of the jobs we do.

Mental health is a serious issue for first responders and today’s potential recruits are more likely than the generations before them to consider the mental-health risks of the job. Before you hold your next recruitment drive, consider this: increased awareness of the mental-health risks of the job could decrease the number of candidates interested in becoming volunteer firefighters. In fact, I have already experienced this perception that being a firefighter leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I met someone in a grocery store who asked me about being a firefighter. We struck up a conversation and I then asked her, “Why don’t you apply the our fire department?” Her answer was swift and to the point. “I would like to,” she exclaimed, “but I don’t want to get PTSD!”

I was taken aback and as I tried to explain that while the stress of dealing with life-or-death situations does affect us at some time in our careers, not all firefighters develop PSTD. According to a 2009 study by the University of Ottawa and University of Washington, 85 per cent of Canadian firefighters had been exposed to at least one traumatic incident within the past year. But when firefighters and first responders do experience mental-health issues, there is more support available than ever, thanks to organizations such as the Tema Conter Memorial Trust and programs such as the Road to Mental Readiness.


That grocery-store conversation made me think that our mental-health awareness advocacy will surely have an effect on our ability to recruit volunteer firefighters. It is difficult to advocate for current first responders without having an effect on our ability to recruit others into this physically and mentally taxing profession.

Despite that risk, we must ensure that we continue to raise awareness for the mental well-being of existing first responders and have mental-health awareness and mental- illness prevention and response programs in place. Therefore, when we do recruit, we can provide  members with the tools to maintain good mental health.

Including mental-health information in recruitment handouts and on information nights may help to address this misunderstanding that all firefighters experience PTSD. Explaining your department’s mental-illness prevention programs, the employee assistance program (EAP), the Road to Mental Readiness course or other similar offerings, and openly discussing peer support and critical incident stress management (CISM) may help to alleviate concerns.

Recruits need to know they can ask for help. Fire departments should be ready to answer questions, provide examples of stressful situations, and explain how the department deals with them through peer support, CISM, mental-illness awareness programs, and EAPs. It is my hope that raised awareness will arm recruits with knowledge that will truly help to prevent mental-health issues. It is OK to say you need help. In fact, we encourage it more than ever. First responders answer calls for a living, so our own calls for help will not go unheard.

I have often said there is no real difference between a career and volunteer firefighter. Equally, I believe mental stress does not distinguish between career and volunteer first responders. We all answer calls to help others in during tragic times, and witness and experience difficult things. Mental health affects all of us and we need to ensure that recruits have the tools and support to live better lives as we volunteer our services.

As we develop strategies to recruit voluntees we are also going to have to address the questions from potential recruits about PTSD and mental-health risks. Thinking about this before your next recruitment drive will help you prepare for the questions you may hear from potential recruits. This will also inform the community of your department’s efforts to help your members deal with trauma, become resilient and maintain strong mental health.

Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince

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