Volunteer Vision: Roadside memorials can remind first responders of trauma
By Vince MacKenzie
Firefighters do hazardous work, and that work can be very unpleasant at times. Emergency services form the safety network of our communities, and in the vast majority of communities volunteers are doing this work.
By Vince MacKenzie
In my May column, I wrote about the increasing public awareness around first responder mental health issues and how this could possibly affect our recruitment efforts. On the topic of mental health, my focus this month is the construction of makeshift monuments that community members erect on our highways and roads to mark the tragic losses of loved ones. These markers can remind first responders working in the area of the traumatic highway accident scenes that they responded to.
I understand that these highway memorials can bring comfort to families and friends that have lost loved ones. As first responders, we can sympathize. However, I think it is our caring and compassionate natures that make us a little reluctant to protest these monuments publicly, for fear of seeming insensitive to community members who were affected by the accident.
First responders might be simply taking a drive, patrolling during a workday, or responding to other incidents in the area, when these markers may force them to relive negative past experiences. First responders typically serve the same response districts, which are usually near where they live. The memorials can serve as a constant grim reminder to responders who were on scene. I fear these reminders could interfere in the healing process and further contribute to any mental stress injuries first responders suffered as a result of the response.
I know I don’t feel very nice when I drive past a location where I have responded to a tragic incident, especially if it is marked with a cross on the exact spot. As the same crews respond to more and more incidents in the community, these numbers start to add up in our mental filing cabinet of scenes we would prefer to forget. Over time, it could negatively affect the mental wellbeing of first responders. In some respects, it seems a little cruel that the people who answer the call for help are being constantly reminded of their worst responses. If public awareness around mental health is being raised, maybe it’s time for government departments to consider regulating or prohibiting this type of activity?
In the past few weeks, fire departments across Atlantic Canada have responded to a number of very public tragic incidents. Some were horrific calls where responders died in the line of duty, some due to accidents at the scene, and some tragically by suicide.
There are many times in our fire fighting careers that can seem like we are responding to nothing but death and destruction for a continued period of time. This has been the case for me, due to the events in recent months. While I didn’t experience this stress first-hand, those public incidents have had a significant impact on firefighters, as well as police officers and EMS workers.
Firefighters are often the first to arrive on scene. Many of our tragic responses also become news stories. This sort of coverage has a tendency to drag on emotionally, as the community deals with this situation. The continuous news cycle and social media makes it even more difficult for first responders to avoid thinking about the incident. This makes the availability of mental health awareness training and support services for our volunteers even more important.
More often I find myself being brought back to calls of trauma and tragedy throughout my career. I have spoken to other responders across the country and many feel the same. First responders in police, EMS, and fire services are working our roadways on a daily basis; the highways essentially become our workplaces. These monuments can become an operational hazard, by constantly reminding first responders of traumatic calls.
Perhaps the public doesn’t realize the degree of pain that these calls can cause first responders. Especially in small communities, volunteers often know the victims or the families personally. I think if affected families knew the impact these monuments can have on first responders’ mental health, this practice would change. I think it is time that we communicate this issue to the public in a respectful way and I believe the government should protect first responders’ mental health and put regulations in place. The Highway Traffic Act and municipal traffic regulations should also adopt changes to help those who keep our communities safe.
First responders work on our highways and we should protect their mental health as best we can, just as we protect other workers from occupational health and safety risks.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince