Emergency responders carry a man to an awaiting ambulance after being extricated from his pickup truck, one of two vehicles involved in a collision along Highway 97B in Salmon Arm (Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer file)

Emergency responders carry a man to an awaiting ambulance after being extricated from his pickup truck, one of two vehicles involved in a collision along Highway 97B in Salmon Arm (Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer file)

Front-line stress and trauma: are Island first responders prepared?

Big Read: Industry leaders call for more pre-incident training

They’re first on scene and there when you need them.

But for public service members who dedicate themselves to helping others, sometimes the biggest challenge is taking care of themselves.

It’s a lesson Michael Swainson learned the hard way.

“A lot of people suffer in silence … First responders put everybody else first – that’s the nature of the beast – we’re really shitty at taking care of ourselves.”

Swainson worked in the Yukon for 25 years as a paramedic, emergency medical services supervisor and dispatch supervisor, firefighter, professional ski patroller, and a disaster trainer and evaluator. As a paramedic alone, he went on roughly 6,000 calls in Whitehorse. For that area it was normal. If he had been working somewhere like Vancouver, he said that number could have easily been double.

“For first responders it’s a conveyor belt of trauma, eventually you run out of coping strategies,” Swainson said.

And there is no magic number of calls a first responder can take before the damage is done. In Canada 145 first responders died by suicide from 2015 to 2017, according to Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization dedicated to helping emergency, public safety and military members.

Vince Savoia, Tema executive director, said even though the organization does its best to track deaths some are missed. To date, they are aware of four first responders committing suicide this year.

“The one thing we’re not prepared for is how this job will effect you,” Savoia said, emphasizing a need for more pre-incident training. “PTSD strikes when you least expect it.”

It’s not just post-traumatic stress disorder first responders have to worry about. Savoia noted compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are more prevalent in the industry but not talked about as much.

“When the first responder has given so much to others they just don’t have any more to give,” Savoia explained, adding they’ll do whatever they can to take some of the pain away from victims, often internalizing it.

A study, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in August 2017, found that nearly 45 per cent of the more than 5,800 first responders surveyed reported symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder.

Working to protect and repair

In January 2009, Swainson was officially diagnosed with PTSD, although he had probably been struggling with it for at least a decade. At the time he thought that now that he knew what it was he could treat it and move forward. But it’s not as simple as taking a pill for a headache. Swainson has had three more flare-ups, with the latest last year.

Michael Swainson worked as a first responder for 25 years and now teaches other about PTSD. (Photo by Norm Hamilton)

Now, he works to arm other first responders with the ‘psychological body armour’ they need to survive. He owns and operates Rescue 1 and specializes in post traumatic stress education and prevention.

“What I teach is not so much how to respond mentally after a bad call but how to prepare for a bad call … and it will happen. It’s not a matter of if but when and how many,” he explained.

Despite extensive protocols mandated by governments on everything from how to correctly sit in a fire truck to filling out paperwork, what’s missing is training to prepare for the mental traumas of the job. It’s up to local departments to find and pay for programs or classes such as Swainson’s – which are few and far between.

Regardless of the size of community they’re working in, first responders will be involved in a number of critical incidents during their careers: duty deaths, colleague suicides, work-related injuries, even multi-casualty terrorism incidents or disasters. Events with a high degree of threat, or involving children or a victim is known to responders, or any significantly powerful event can have an effect.

After one of these incidents, Swainson noted first responders will suffer fromtraumatic stress symptoms including re-living the event, avoiding reminders, difficulty sleeping, withdrawal, extreme emotional or physical reactions, losing interest, being on guard, anger or irritability, or emotional numbness.

“It’s entirely normal to have some or all of those symptoms for three to seven days,” he explained. However, when those symptoms persist for more than a month, it shifts to PTSD.

His third time “going down the PTSD drain,” as Swainson puts it, was the worst. It was while he was working as a dispatcher, a tough job because you live every call you take, he noted. “That was basically the nail in the coffin … It ended my career as a first responder.”

As everyone reacts differently to a call, it is almost impossible to predict if and when an individual will develop PTSD, Savoia noted.

“We encourage first responders to find a mental health professional they can work with and go see them twice a year.”

Local departments have a number of critical incident protocols in place to help protect members after a bad call, which can include internal education and awareness programs, peer counseling, debriefings and a referral network. But again the onus is on the department and often the individuals within the organization to make sure they and their colleagues are getting the help they need.

Swainson referenced a portion of the speech Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich made during a service honouring Const. John Davidson, an officer that died last fall after being shot in the line of duty.

Rich told the roughly 8,000 first responders in attendance, including bus loads from Greater Victoria, to take the time they needed to heal, whether that was making a claim, taking some sick days or leaning on family for support.

“The time for ‘sucking it up’ is over,” Swainson echoed. “That’s the change in mentality … it used to be ‘have a couple of drinks and get over it.’”

Help is coming

In 2012 Alberta became the first province to recognize PTSD as a presumptive workplace injury – removing the burden of proof from first responders. Other provinces with similar legislation include Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and the Yukon

Earlier this month, B.C. announced amendments to the Workers Compensation Act. If passed, they will add mental injuries to a list of presumptive conditions for some public service personnel. However, Cameron Eby, provincial president of Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. (CUPE 873), noted emergency service dispatchers were not among those included in that legislation.

Until it is passed, and all are included, first responders will have to continue to prove their injuries are caused by their occupation.

“The work paramedics and other first responders do, they’re exposed to pretty much the worst situations imaginable … For too long we’ve had people ending their careers and even their lives because of the burdens of work,” Eby said,

He noted the new legislation will remove some barriers and help decrease the stigma surrounding mental health injuries.

“It’s becoming OK to put your hand up and say you’re affected and you need help. The tide is starting to change on that.”

For Swainson, it took 13 months to have his claim approved in the Yukon after a judicator agreed his PTSD was caused by his career. “I shouldn’t have been treated that way,” he said.

But he too is starting to see a shift. “My caseworker now is unbelievable … She phones me just to see how I’m doing.”

Swainson, who now lives in Kelowna, was stopped by a police officer one evening. While chatting, Swainson explained he taught first responders about PTSD and asked the officer what he knew about the injury.

“He said to me: ‘we all have it.’”


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

editor@goldstreamgazette.com

first respondersptsd

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

First responders face some of the worst scenes imaginable, sometimes even helping their colleagues. But industry leaders are calling for more to be done to prepare them for the mental injuries that come with the job. (Adam Kveton/PQB News file)

First responders face some of the worst scenes imaginable, sometimes even helping their colleagues. But industry leaders are calling for more to be done to prepare them for the mental injuries that come with the job. (Adam Kveton/PQB News file)

Just Posted

James Taylor, a Saanich resident and member of the Curve Lake First Nation, walked all over Greater Victoria on May 5 in honour of Red Dress Day and the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Devon Bidal/News staff)
Indigenous man walks Greater Victoria to honour missing and murdered women and girls

James Taylor, of the Curve Lake First Nation, marks Red Dress Day with healing walk, songs

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man arrested for allegedly spitting, yelling anti-Asian racial slurs at a mother and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

Victoria police is asking for the public’s assistance in identifying this suspect after they allegedly robbed a Douglas Street bank on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Police seek identity of suspect who alllegedly robbed Victoria bank

Officers were called to a bank in the 1000-block of Douglas Street just after 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday

Victoria police said Wednesday that they continue to look for Belinda Ann Cameron, who was last seen on May 5, 2005. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Victoria police still looking for Belinda Cameron who was last seen 16 years ago

Cameron was reported missing on June 4, 2005, and her case is deemed suspicious

Colwood-based writer Esi Edugyan will speak about the deep research she did before writing <em>Washington Black</em>, her third novel. (Black Press Media file photo)
Colwood author Esi Edugyan giving talk May 6 about her research and writing process

Event is part of Royal Road’s Changemaker series celebrating its 25th anniversary

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of May 4

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
Clash between loggers, activists halts forestry operations over Fairy Creek

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

The courthouse in Nanaimo, B.C. (News Bulletin file)
Island man sentenced in Nanaimo after causing a dog unnecessary pain and suffering

Kiefer Tyson Giroux, 26, of Nanoose Bay, given six-month sentence

Following a one-year pause due to the pandemic, the Snowbirds were back in the skies over the Comox Valley Wednesday (May 5) morning. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Video: Snowbirds hold first training session in Comox Valley in more than 2 years

The team will conduct their training from May 4 to 26 in the area

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

Most Read