After a traumatic day, support for each other essential, says Priddis hero
When most people see a building on fire, their natural reaction would be to get as far away as possible, call 911, and hope for the best.
For firefighters, they thrive on the opportunity to save lives, protect homes, and extinguish the blaze.
Video Update: April 5, 2012
Produced by: Sunjeev Prasad
Now imagine the aforementioned firefighter is not on the payroll and receives little to no benefits. Volunteer firefighters step into emergency situations on a daily basis because of their passion for serving the public.
Joel Fournie, a member of the Priddis Volunteer Fire Dept. says, “Being hired as a fulltime firefighter is not a guarantee. You have to be passionate and you must know that this is your calling in life.
“I know guys who have applied to the Calgary Fire Department six times before they were hired on. Each year they’re improving themselves, whether it’s physically, training for the job itself, or learning another trade. There are a lot of skills you can bring to firefighting.”
Meeting all the physical demands of the job is only the beginning of what firefighters are expected to accomplish; remaining emotionally sound under highly stressful situations is also crucial to their success.
Fournie says, “We’ve witnessed young children die. You see on it on TV and think you’ll be able to deal with the emotional stresses but when you’re there, the job is to do the best you can to help. If the outcome isn’t as you wanted it to be, it’s incredibly difficult.”
A particular story that Fournie recalls took place this past December, right around Christmas time.
“It was what we refer to as ‘fully involved,’ which means that the entire home is essentially up in flames, this was the first emergency I had been to that was this intense.
Fournie recounts the events in suspenseful detail.
“As soon as we arrived, the homeowner was attempting to fight off the flames with his garden hose but had little success. His children were obviously distraught, and we were prepared for a long battle.
“After fighting the blaze for a few hours my crew chief decides that going on the offensive [attacking the heart of the blaze] is our best bet. Soon after entering the house on the second floor, ready to attack, we are told to evacuate the building immediately since the homeowner had cracked open the front door in an attempt to alleviate the flames but instead added more oxygen to the mix.
“We hurried out of the second floor balcony before the roof had a chance to collapse which, if it didn’t crush us, definitely would have trapped us inside.”.
After a call that emotionally draining, Fournie says it is mandatory that all firefighters are required to attend what is called a Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing, or CISM.
CISM debriefings aim to help emergency responders and military, among other workers in high-stress professions, prevent any onsets of post-traumatic stress disorder by encouraging open discussion about an incident not long after it happened, and remind those affected of services available to them.
Another coping mechanism, that anyone outside of firefighting crews have likely never heard of, is referred to as the brotherhood, which has been unofficially adopted by many departments.
Chris Woolhouse, a fellow volunteer firefighter says, “It’s a key element to the fire department and when you go through tough calls. It’s nice to know your brothers are there for you.
“When you first start, the senior guys pick on you because they want to see where your breaking point is. They’ll play practical jokes on you just to see how you react. If you break under that, you’re going to break under the stress of a call. If you can handle it, they know that you have their backs so it’s really about building that trust between fellow firefighters.”
Sharing such close quarters with the rest of the crew for extended periods of time can become tiresome, “In some cases you live with these guys 24 hours a day or even longer. Once in a while you don’t get along with people but you have to be able to make it work, essentially like a family,” says Woolhouse.
The brotherhood fosters an open environment that allows fellow firefighters to approach one another in a time of need.
Fournie says, “Of course, opening up to my parents or close friends helps but the brotherhood allows you to speak with fellow firefighters that were at that emergency call with you. No matter what you’re feeling nobody is going to think any less of you if you’re emotionally drained.”
Bev Fournie, Joel’s mother, has noticed the toll certain calls have had on her son. “It’s understandable that he’s distraught after witnessing tragedies such as children passing away. Of course I have my concerns and we’ve discussed it but Joel is deeply passionate about pursuing a career in firefighting.”
Aside from the high degree of stress, the sense of fulfillment experienced when attending an emergency call makes it worthwhile.
Woolhouse says, “The smile that you witness on peoples’ faces when you show up and they know you’re there to help them is tough to replace. It’s rewarding in itself to be helping the public.”
Joel Fournie shares a similar sentiment, “We have a saying around here, ‘When it’s peoples’ worst day; when it’s their emergency, it’s our best day because we have the opportunity to help.’”
Also see: Post-traumatic stress disorder: The flames inside firefighters’ minds