150 Mile House Volunteer Fire Department Chief Stan McCarthy and his crew respond to a house fire in Williams Lake recently to assist the Williams Lake Fire Department. Angie Mindus photo

AFTERBURN: Helping the helpers

Part 4: How first responders deal with the stress of fighting fires

Sometimes those taking care of us, also need to be taken care of.

What has become evident following the 2017 wildfires is that many people in the community are facing increased stress. We may not all have lost homes, but even though we may not recognize it, many of us continue to be deeply affected by the events of last summer.

This is the fourth in a five-part series on mental health and wellness following the 2017 wildfires, being collaborated on between the Tribune and the Mental Health Working Group. While this series is by no means a substitute for professional support, please use this as a guide to point yourself and your loved ones towards the many resources available, events currently being planned and activities related to improving your mental health and wellness in Williams Lake.

AFTERBURN: Helping the helpers

Amidst the heat, the smoke and the constant battle and daily grind of wildfire are the individuals trained with the skills and resources to help.

These are also the people who work long hours in high-stress environments, and stay behind when their families and loved ones leave.

While many think of them as heroes, they’re also people, normal people, and like all of us, have felt the stress from the summer of 2017.

Stan McCarthy is the fire chief for the 150 Mile Fire Department, but he’s also been working in mental health and addictions for almost as long as he’s been fighting fires.

The two trades served him and his department well through the summer of 2017, when McCarthy’s background in mental health kept him on top of what his fire department needed — both mentally and professionally.

“It has affected our members, some more than others,” said McCarthy.

While he has lost a couple members who haven’t returned to service following the fires, he said the majority of his crew came out of the wildfires alright, in no small thanks due to supports that were in place both before, during and after the fires.

One of the major things McCarthy points to is debriefing. It’s a process that happens regularly at the fire department, before or after a fire or medical call, even after training.

Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “How is everybody doing? Fine. OK,” said McCarthy.

Other times, like in a critical incident such as the wildfires, it’s an involved, ongoing practice.

“That’s why we have safety meetings all the time. You have debriefings in the mornings and the night, you have game plans of what is going on,” he said.

Read more: AFTERBURN: How are you doing after the wildfires?

“We talk financial stress, physical stress, concern about family, how can we improve on what we are doing. You don’t ever [complain] about what went wrong, but if someone has a suggestion on how to improve we will try to follow through and if someone is really bothered and if someone, for example sees cloud smoke and get scared then that person needs extra help then we get them extra help.”

It’s something the BC Wildfire Service works on too. The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources has a team of 15 peers across the province called the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team. All volunteers are trained in supporting their fellow firefighters and Ministry of Forest workers during incidents like the wildfires.

“The analogy I use is if you cut your finger, the critical and stress management team peers are equivalent to a Level 3 first aid. We can irrigate the wound, clean it out and assist your body to heal itself and most of the time that works. If you have that cut finger, and you didn’t do that, irrigate it and it got dirty, you are not guaranteed an infection, but you may be more prone to it,” said Erik Hanson, an experienced firefighter as well as a CISM team member.

“If you cut the finger off, then we direct you to where you need it, in our case that is Morneau Shepell,” he said. The ministry has a network of resources available to assist first responders, and much is offered, including counselling and coaching through the company.

During last summer’s wildfires Hanson said they had peers who deployed for almost two months straight to the Cariboo Fire Centre area, with team members rotating through.

Generally, he said, their workers are resilient.

“If you encounter something you have never encountered before, it is something that can overwhelm your natural resilience, so we work to augment that resilience.”

Read more: AFTERBURN: How can I help?

The symptoms he said he sees are much the same as what any normal person might experience in the face of the fires, but the long and stressful work can take its toll.

“If you had stayed up all night and you handn’t had a good meal and you got a call that someone you were close to was critically ill, it would be a lot more challenging than if you were well slept and fed, in a good mental space.

“So, for first responders there is a certain amount of that. This is what the job entails, but it is accumulative.”

Discussing that, he said, is important.

“You have to have the time to talk about challenging things that have come up and deal with that.”

For those who are contracted by the Ministry, Hanson said they have the ability to reach out to WorkSafe BC for similar supports.

McCarthy said that following the wildfires, the department had a WorkSafe professional come down for debriefing sessions on more than one occasion, and that there are still files related to stress open with WorkSafe, should issues pop up down the road.

Keeping tabs on the mental health of his members during the fires was another matter.

Part of their success both during and after the fires, McCarthy credits to training. Because his crews knew what they were doing, because they had had officers training related to critical incidents, and because they were kept abreast of what was going on, they were able to stay level headed while wildfire raged around them.

They also made adjustments during the fires. At one moment, he said he had several separate crews working in different areas, on different fires. When a member, during a debrief, mentioned that they wanted to know how the other crews were doing, McCarthy adjusted. As crews were able to offer help or ask for help, or simply know how others were doing, or in other words, as communication lines were opened, it released the pressure, McCarthy said.

“They didn’t feel like lost sheep out there.”

Still, fighting fires around the clock while their families were evacuated was no easy task.

Read more: AFTERBURN: Are the kids okay?

“Some guys fought fires when they thought their own house was gone and they stayed and kept going because they wanted to help,” said McCarthy.

“After a couple weeks, we knew they needed a break. Four members had new babies and I knew they wanted to see them. I made sure the men had time off. I had to tell a couple guys that ‘You have to go.’ They didn’t want to leave but I could tell they were just running on Adrenalin and pure stubbornness.”

At one point during the fires, while other fire departments were in 150 Mile helping out, McCarthy gave his members an evening off. They went swimming at Dugan Lake.

“They had a night where they didn’t have to worry about the fires and that’s probably one of the better things you do.”

Even McCarthy, who said he is well aware of when he needs to reach our for help for his own mental wellness, found it tough.

“Some days you get so tired, but you still put one foot in front of the other. You just gotta go on,” he said.

His family evacuated while he stayed. “It was concerning, but I wasn’t worried about them because I knew they were safe and everybody knew they were safe. Everybody kept in contact through social media.”

He stresses that one of the most important things first responders can do in the face of any emergency or call, is to talk about it.

“You have to think of emotion as a ball of energy … so you need to get rid of that ball of energy. How do you do that? You do something physical to get rid of it, you push it in which becomes depression,or you can talk about it and let it out and loosen up all that energy and then it doesn’t concern you. You need to release it somehow,” he said.

“Talk about it. Exercise. Eat properly. Don’t abuse substances. If you find yourself not sleeping, not eating, bothered, ask for help. You have to ask for help, because you could be the best councillor in the world but if someone doesn’t say something to you, you can’t help.”

He also mentions celebrating and continuing those conversations once the fires were over.

“You need to follow through with it and not just say ‘Okay we are done. We go home,’ and leave it like that because those guys worked hard.”

Even though there were moments when crews felt helpless in the face of the fires, there were other moments when they returned to an area they’d worked in after it was evacuated and the firestorm passed over, to find that no residence had been lost. Still, one of the major issues for the people who are trained to help, who protect homes and who save lives, is accepting what they can’t change.

“Some things you can’t do anything about. When the firestorm comes, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to stand in front of it and stop it,” said McCarthy.

“You have to accept it.”

Read more: Mental Health call-line set up for people affected by 2017 wildfire season


@Tspricker
tara.sprickerhoff@wltribune.com

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