In their role as first responders, volunteer firefighters often see some pretty disturbing things.
“You have to try to control your emotions while you’re at the scene, and try to leave it there when you leave, if you’re able to,” says Wolfville’s fire chief, Kirk Fredericks, who has 24 years of experience.
On July 4, Wolfville firefighters, EHS paramedics and RCMP responded to a drowning at Lumsden Dam that took the life of an 18-year-old. After several hours of searching, the young man’s body was found.
Fredericks said tragedies of this kind are hard, particularly when young people are involved.
“We see it as a life wasted,” he said. “We see far too much of it, really.”
In terms of managing critical stress at accident scenes, Fredericks said older firefighters tend to have seen a lot more of it.
“You do get used to it, over time, but only to a point,” he said, adding that it’s “a matter of pushing it aside.”
For the past two decades, firefighters have had access to Critical Incident Stress (CIS) debriefing, sponsored by the provincial Fire Marshal’s office. It consists of “low-level training by our peers. We’ve used it for about 15 years now, for our more serious incidents.”
The CIS counsellors, who are often former first responders themselves, are trained in a range of physical or emotional impacts that are common in the aftermath of
fire or accident scenes involving fatalities.
A day or two following the incident, at the discretion of the chief, a CIS team is brought in to do a ‘circle talk’, and gauge people’s feelings.
“They look in particular for people who appear to be having more difficulties than others.”
Often, Fredericks said, firefighters will try to hide their feelings, believing that a failure to do so is somehow a sign of weakness.
“We try to keep an eye on that, and make sure it doesn’t get out of control,” he said.
Without the proper counselling and debriefing, he said, it can easily lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
While firefighters learn, over time, to better deal with critical incident stress, “it’s a lot harder on the younger ones. Often, the first time some of them will encounter a dead body is at one of our accident scenes.”
Drowning scenes present their own variables. Often, a search and then a recovery is part of the equation, as was the case at Lumsden Dam.
Though it is often difficult, Fredericks said, “you have to learn to shut your emotions off. Some of us are able to do it better than others. Some don’t ever learn to deal with it.”
If at all possible, firefighters in that situation aren’t sent on those kinds of calls.
Whatever the stress, the CIS people, who are essentially professional volunteers, are available to help. In some cases, the first responders involved may end up having to seek professional help.
The July 4 incident, with the impact of post tropical storm Arthur coming right on its heels, “made for a pretty stressful week,” he said, not to mention some long hours.
“A lot of us are just starting to recover now.”