David Stewart spends most of his days working under car hoods in South Lake as an auto mechanic.
At the end of the day, sometimes it’s not easy to relax.
When Mr Stewart drives by certain locations in his community, he can’t help recalling graphic memories which he suspects are permanently etched in his mind.
If his wife and children are running a bit late driving home, classic symptoms of anxiety start to creep into Mr Stewart’s mind.
“There is definitely a higher level of anxiety or worry than is rational about will they arrive home, are they okay,” he said.
Mr Stewart is the vice president of the Eastern Kings Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter and a medical first responder.
Over his past 15 years of service, he has responded to countless incidents, 10 of which led to fatalities. One of those fatalities was a close relative.
Mr Stewart doesn’t share the details of his experiences to scare anyone from becoming a firefighter which he describes as immensely rewarding work. “We do save lives and even if someone does end up losing their life and it’s not the outcome you would hope for, the family has some comfort in knowing everything possible was done.”
He shares the details because he sees a real need to break past stigma and create a culture of education and support for mental health.
Amanda Brazil has been researching firefighters’ experiences critical incident stress since 2016. Her PhD thesis, published through UPEI in 2019, focused on the topic.
As a researcher and former volunteer firefighter with Cross Roads Fire Department, she has also advocated for more critical stress management support and programs for PEI firefighters.
“Mental health champions need to rise up in the departments, work together and rally for change. The champions need to include officers and chiefs. A single loud voice can’t do it alone,” she said.
After years of research and advocacy, Ms Brazil has seen little broad-reaching change.
“There is still nothing available to firefighters aside from a critical incident stress debrief after a traumatic call provided by a network of caring volunteer debriefers,” she said.
Ms Brazil recommends education during firefighter training, access to specialized therapists and peer support systems.
She had been discussing a few possibilities with government just before COVID-19, but all focus on these ideas seems to have gone to the wayside at the moment.
Georgetown Fire Chief Mark Gotell said the debrief option organized by the PEI Fire Marshal has been helpful.
“Before we had this type of debrief, I had firefighters pack it in after a bad call.”
PEI Fire Marshal Dave Rossiter said his office is not mandated to provide or organize mental health supports such as debrief sessions.
“We realize the need and we try to bridge somewhat of a gap.”
Mr Gotell and Mr Stewart would both welcome more supports for firefighters.
“It’s something that can be hard to talk about on PEI,” Mr Gotell said, adding that mental health services are not always easy to access through the health care system.
“They need more than a debrief,” Ms Brazil stressed.
“They need dedicated therapists if the debrief isn’t enough. Placing them in the regular mental health queue will not work. It will likely inhibit help seeking.”
Over the course of 38 years of firsthand experience in the fire department, Mr Gotell has learned to keep an eye on fellow members who have responded to stressful incidents but he, like many other chiefs, hasn’t had formal training about mental health.
“If I know there has been a bad call, I’ll call whoever responded and ask if they’re okay. If I know it was really bad I’ll call the spouse and get them to keep an eye out because sometimes people think they’re fine, but they’re not,” Mr Gotell said.
Twenty-seven of 38 Island fire departments respond to medical calls. It is estimated medical calls account for about 80 per cent of calls Island-wide.
Claude Gavin, one of Island EMS’s operations managers said the volunteer service is invaluable to Islanders in emergency situations.
“They really do a lot for their community,” said Mr Gavin about firefighters before explaining volunteers already in the community, often have an advantage getting to incidents quickly and sometimes more trained hands helping with access to an incident for example can be very helpful.
Mr Stewart sees by working together with paramedics and police, fast responses are possible without having the province waste resources by posting an ambulance in South Lake 24 hours a day for example.
Mr Gotell sees the rewarding and practical elements of responding to medical calls too.
“One of the first people I defibrillated with an AED, I see him in the community today and sometimes he puts a hand on his chest. Knowing it could have gone different. It’s always good to see him,” Mr Gotell said.
Acknowledging the positive aspects of firefighters responding to medical calls, Mr Gotell questions how firefighters are treated compared to the province’s other first responders.
“The police respond and they get paid. Ambulances respond, they get paid. Paramedics respond, they’re paid, traffic control, tow truck drivers they all get paid. But firefighters, we don’t get paid.”
Ms Brazil said, the money volunteer firefighters save municipalities is huge, so is the gap in the mental health services provided to the Island’s more than 1,000 volunteers.