About 30 local firefighters, paramedics, search and rescue volunteers and RCMP members gathered under sunny skies one sunny evening in August outside the fire hall in Williams Lake.
All dressed in uniform, members laughed and visited with one another like old friends as RCMP police dog Grim, an extra-large and enthusiastic German Shepherd, and the coroner’s playful Labradoodle, Georgia, ducked and dodged each other in a game of tag, before emergency responders and artist Daniel Sandahl arrived.
“It’s rare that we’re all together in a non-emergency setting,” Sandahl said to the group. He went on to explain he has been a firefirefighter and paramedic in Edmonton, Alberta for the past 17 years, but that he is also an artist who uses his images to promote the work of emergency services and mental health awareness surrounding post traumatic stress.
“I’m kind of geeking out,” Cpl. Bentley Bouchard whispers, after getting a laugh for shouting ‘everyone should know you.’
“I have been following his work for years. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, you name it.”
Bouchard has been a police officer for the past 17 years herself, 10 of those in her dream job as a dog handler with police dog services.
She’s responded to break and enters, searches and worse.
Bouchard and her husband, Mark, a Delta city police officer with whom she just had her first child with this year, make a point of keeping themselves mentally healthy as emergency responders.
“Together we’re just very supportive but also very aware of it in ourselves personally,” she said.
“I try to be accepting of different feelings I’m having as a result of different files. I speak to a psychologist every three weeks and I have for years and it’s something that just keeps me balanced and keeps me feeling healthy.”
Regular exercise is another way Bouchard keeps the pressures of her work from negatively impacting her.
For Rick White, a long-time chief with Central Cariboo Search and Rescue, his team talks to each other regularly to keep their mental health in check.
“Everybody knows within the group we’re all available to talk 24/7,” he said. “When I first joined it was ‘don’t talk about it, be tough, man up.’ Now we know it’s out there we talk about it … it’s in the forefront of our group, like it is for all first responders. We’re proactive.”
Bob Piderman has been volunteering with land and auto extrication CCSAR for six years and credits the close bond between responders with staying healthy.
“We’re a very strong team, we support one another, that’s how we get through it. More often than not we have happy endings, so we can put up with the not-so- happy endings with the support of the others.”
Serving for four years as a civilian in a domestic violence unit alongside the RCMP in a very small community led Stacie Beck to her calling as a coroner.
“Someone has to take care of our deceased in the end. We have so many services that help people while they’re alive and I think it’s important because I’m able to provide answers to families or at least assist them in understanding what may have happened in a situation,” Beck said.
“It’s rewarding when I can provide them, whether it’s with personal effects that I’ve recovered on a scene or answers in terms of times or dates, or places or even just bringing their loved ones home. It’s really important when someone is missing to bring them home for that closure.”
Beck attributes the camaraderie of emergency responders in Williams Lake with staying healthy together.
“It’s the late night phone calls. I can sit here and call any emergency services about things we saw, smelled, felt, deal with, so they’re absolutely great here … If I didn’t have such an amazing team I probably would have quit many years ago.”
When pressed, Beck admitted there are tough times when you are an emergency responder.
“We’re also human beings. We’re going to have our bad days, we’re going to break down after a scene or an incident but it’s just important to remind ourselves that we’re here to help others and that’s why we do it.”
Following the photo shoot in August, Sandahl, using a combination of photography and digital drawing and painting, produced several images from his time with emergency responders in Williams Lake that have received world-wide attention, shining a bright light on the important work of first responders and the mental health challenges they face.
“I think there is still a lot we don’t know about (post traumatic stress disorder) and a lot we can do to make it better for everyone,” he said.
Sandahl’s thought-provoking images can be found at www.dansunphotos.com.
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