Firefighters take training courses to become certified to do the job, but the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority has expanded a different area of training, one that deals with the tolls the job can have.
In 2019, the BRFA’s mental health focused programming began with a presentation on “Trauma Informed Leadership” by Dr. Megan McElheran, a specialist on PTSD in military and first responders.
Since then, they’ve been able to offer online courses and established a steering committee with members of the BRFA senior leadership team, Fire, EMS, and 911 divisions. It is co-chaired by regional deputy chief Dan Heney, Iron River chief Gordon Graves, and sponsored by regional fire chief Jay Melvin.
“The mental health piece was something that sometimes gets shied away from. We’re trying to bring it right to the forefront and making sure our members get the training to help them out to deal with the calls that they deal with,” said Melvin.
One of the goals of the steering committee is to determine the best audience for each course that is piloted, while looking so far at awareness level training.
The most recent course “Mental Health First Aid” could be rolled out to not just members of the BRFA, but their significant others as well.
“Firefighters, in particular, in Alberta have the second-highest rate of lost time issues because of mental health in all of Canada. We want to make sure that our staff aren’t suffering from that, or at the very least, we try to make everyone very aware of it in advance so that we can not only take care of ourselves, but take care of the folks around us,” said Heney.
Gordan Graves has been a firefighter for 32 years and has acted as chief of Station 4 Iron River for 17 years.
He described just how much the conversation has changed around the types of trauma that can emerge after responding to severe calls.
He said it’s a double whammy because in a small community, everyone knows everyone, so when the tones go off, they could be going to a family’s house they know well.
“We were on a terrible call out with some of my guys. I knew six generations, the firefighter that would happen to be first on scene with me knew four generations of that family. That hit home hard,” said Graves. “We’re quite fortunate that deputy chief Dan [Heney] came on right about then and Craig [Wenzel, Station 5 chief] was one of the two that really identified we were not in a good place, to say the least, when they got on scene.
“Thankfully, one of the Bonnyville guys phoned me. We had an exceptionally long conversation. And he took that concern to Dan and Dan phoned me, and out of that this has developed. I can’t say enough to express my appreciation for what we’re doing and for the support that Dan and Jay [Melvin] and the Board of BRFA have given us to get this going.”
Mental health issues are the third most common reason for time-loss claims for Canada’s firefighters, but emergency dispatchers also have psychological disorders that exceed the national average.
Brianna Loree, a local dispatcher, could be the first voice a resident from Bonnyville, the M.D., the County of St. Paul, Town of St. Paul, or County of Smoky Lake hears when they dial 911.
As the first point of contact in an emergency, they hear the distressing details and can take those emotions home with them.
“We have to take that caller, we have to calm them down, we have to figure out what’s happening. And we don’t physically see what’s happening. But it leaves a lot to the imagination. And people can tend to internalize that and take it home,” said Loree.
“There were two big takeaways. The instructor gave us a lot of coping mechanisms to deal with mental health crisis. And we also were given a lot of identifiers of how to identify if we can see mental health struggles happening in our co-workers. And it even extends beyond just work, right? If you notice family, loved ones, friends, coping with mental health struggles.”
Moving forward, regional chief Jay Melvin said there are plans in the works to continue bolstering this programming.
“With the restrictions that are in place, we’re continuing to evaluate where our needs are and adjust. But we’re planning to bring in several psychologists to go in and not only talk to the membership, we’re also going to reach out and talk to the spouses and the close friends and bring them in, so they understand how we’re dealing with and maybe help us.”