(File Photo/Francis Tessier-Burns).

Fire departments move to offer PTSD support

In June, a firefighter from Clarence-Rockland took his own life. To help deal with the loss, says Mario Villeneuve, firefighters from Ottawa were called in to offer support those in the smaller community.

“It’s not proven that it was directly related to the fire service,” says Villeneuve, the Clarence-Rockland fire department’s deputy chief. “We have no clue why.”

No matter the cause, a death—especially suicide—of a coworker leaves an indelible mark on those around the victim.

It’s also the type of situation new post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) policies are hoping to address in fire departments across the province.

New regulation

Earlier this year, the province’s Ministry of Labour called on fire departments to implement their own PTSD policy to help support their members.

“The biggest thing is the stigma,” says Tobias Hover, fire chief for The Nation municipality. “It’s to say ‘Yes, you can talk about it’.”

At its latest council meeting, The Nation adopted its PTSD policy, which covers everything from prevention, to symptom recognition, to immediate support, to external support; all separated into four steps.

The first is to engage in more discussions about PTSD within the department, again to break the stigma.

Hovey says firefighters sometimes now gather to do a quick follow-up about a call and adds the discussions are almost always positive.

“We have to get used to doing that after every call,” he says.

The second step is to establish a critical incident stress management (CISM) team that could include other fire departments in Prescott-Russell. That way a firefighter can discuss issues with someone outside the inner circle, but who still understands the job. The third step is to invest in the Volunteer Firemen’s Insurance Service, which has a 24/7 phone number to offer support. And lastly, the policy aims to establish external contacts outside the fire department.

“The first three steps are our responsibility and the fourth is (the firefighter’s) with our help,” says Hovey.

As for Clarence-Rockland, the department is currently working on a draft policy with similar goals. Villeneuve says firefighters are welcome to make comments on it before being adopted within the next month or so.

Lasting effects

Following the council meeting, Hovey said firefighters are often used as “catch-alls”, meaning they’re called to many scenes even though there’s no fire.

That’s especially true in rural areas where emergency response resources are slim.

Hovey says firefighters from The Nation have been asked to ride along in ambulances on the way to the hospital.

“We’ve even had some firefighters end up in the operating room.”

These are extraordinary situations and fighting fires obviously brings along its own set of trials.

“We still talk about the fire in Fournier where the little boy died,” says Hovey.

That fire happened nearly 10 years ago and claimed the life of a three-year-old boy. The department still feels the scars.

To Villeneuve, implementing a PTSD policy is a step in the right direction.

“It’s been talked about quite a bit in the industry for the last five years,” he says. “It’s going to be nice for the public to be aware of that as well.”