In the final instalment of a three-part series, Tessa Clayton, a former intern with the Trail Daily Times, studies the impact Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has had on many firefighters and steps many have taken to overcome the debilitating issue
When Len Toupin, the retired regional fire chief from the Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue Department, stopped taking the medication prescribed to him for personal reasons, the PTSD symptoms came back. He saw a psychologist for a while, but didn’t feel it was helping.
So he started to attend panic attack seminars at the Daly Pavilion in Trail, a mental health facility in the region. There he learned breathing exercises and more about what was happening to his body during the attacks, which helped him get back on track.
There are certain criteria that must be met in order to receive a PTSD diagnosis, the most significant either witnessing or being part of an event that includes serious injury or death.
Other criteria include intense feelings of helplessness or horror, reluctance to enter similar situations and flashbacks. Despite this, Dr. Wowk says physicians sometimes need to use their own personal judgment because not everyone displays symptoms in the same way.
“Each individual can present a little bit variable so I think sometimes it (PTSD) can be difficult to recognize,” he said.
Dr. Cory Wowk of the Calgary Fire Department says firefighters may not recognize the symptoms because they feel these events and feelings are a part of the job they have to deal with, even though “in reality these can be very traumatizing events that people experience and repeatedly experience.”
Toupin can agree. “I’ve been to some (calls) where it didn’t bother me one bit. I went to a hanging, didn’t bother me one bit; but then I went to a (call where an) 18-month-old girl that lived was drowning and that bothered me more than anything. You never know when it’s going to hit you.
“Everything affects you differently and you don’t know it until later on.”
But while he’s progressed well down the path of recovery, things still trigger the memory of Dec. 17.
“Every time I see or do CPR, (it) reminds me of that … that always brings back being out at centre ice at Beaver Valley Arena, that always brings that back,” Toupin said.
Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Chief Terry Martin said he’s under the impression that to file a mental stress claim through Work Safe BC it must be directly related to a specific incident, not necessarily several incidents over time.
He says he believes Work Safe BC is now reviewing those guidelines to make amendments for emergency services personnel, which he thinks will make a huge difference in helping people get assistance.
When Toupin’s career first started, not much was known about the disorder — it wasn’t even called PTSD then, it went by critical incident stress, and according to him, it was a relatively new phenomenon. Debriefing wasn’t necessary and there was no structure in place for it; members were essentially left to fend for themselves after attending a call.
But that has since changed.
Chief Martin said the Kootenay Boundary department got more involved with the local Columbia Valley Assessment Referral Service and training sessions about incident debriefing in the mid 90’s after losing a member to the stress of a few key incidents.
Today, each of the six regional fire halls has a trained debriefer on hand. The Kootenay Critical Incident Stress Team, based in Nelson is another resource the department uses to help members who may be affected by a particular event.
Besides debriefing teams and other resources, the CFD launched a pilot project in January 2011 that aims to provide funding for members who physicians feel should pursue counseling immediately or are already in counseling, extending financial help for things not covered by their benefit plan.
This is being funded by the department’s medical budget, and as far as Crosby knows, is the only program in place in the country.
And the fact that the CAFC has recognized PTSD as an issue that needs more attention is another big step forward.
Toupin said his own experiences have made him more aware of and attentive to co-workers who may be suffering from PTSD and subsequent addictions.
“I felt I waited too long and now I preach to these young guys — it sounds like I’m being their dad … and I’ve even told them that they can even phone me in the middle of the night if they don’t want to talk to anybody else. I would do that for them.”
“I didn’t want anybody going through what I went through without some help.”
Because his experience was played out on a TV show, Mack was prepared for the publicity he would receive, which he says made him more comfortable doing his presentation for groups about PTSD and addiction.
His personal story and resulting national committee and funding idea was the main push behind the resolution submitted by the New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs to the CAFC.
Mack said part of his biggest problem after his fire was the next thing that could happen — death. At the time he thought his partner wasn’t going to come out of the building alive and he says he wasn’t prepared to experience the next worst thing, causing him to back away from the job he loved. That incident was the one that finally popped his cork.
He explained that he felt ashamed of himself because he felt he no longer fit the profile of how a firefighter should act and feel, which is neither healthy or accurate he said.
“It’s the biggest crock of bull that I ever fell into and that’s still the mindset out there right now,” he stated.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about the fire chiefs and what I’ve been trying to do for the past two years: to get this mindset cleared up so that firefighters no longer think that we’re supposed to go and experience these traumatic events and be unaffected.”
He doesn’t expect or want the public to change their perceptions of firefighters, but he does want those within the service to realize that they really are no different from everyone else.
“We’re human beings at the end of the day and at the end of the day if we’ve seen something that human beings aren’t meant to go through then we have to be honest with ourselves and say, ‘that sucked.’ And take a minute to say it’s OK to feel this way, this is normal and I shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling bad or out of sorts,” he says.
“That’s why I don’t look back, when I do these presentations, I’m not embarrassed, I’m not ashamed — I’m actually grateful I did go through that because if those things hadn’t happened I’d still be an alcoholic and I’d still be messed up from not dealing with all these other traumatic events.”