A health and safety worker with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services says he's never seen stress and anxiety so rampant among first responders.

Acting captain of occupational health and safety Steve Fraser says the ongoing overdose crisis has many firefighters dealing with emotional and mental fallout because of their job.

"We have different degrees of how people are coping," Fraser told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn. "Some people are coping better with it than others. But one thing I do know is everybody is affected by it.

"It is responding to these calls, over and over again and dealing with a community and people in that community dealing with mental illness and doing our very best to help them and in many cases save their lives." 

The overdose crisis is different, Fraser says, not only because of the unprecedented numbers, but because first responders feel the need to watch out for their own safety between unsafe conditions and potentially unsafe people involved in the calls.

Education, rotation

Fraser says the call volume is not going to decrease any time soon. That means first responders need to be vigilant about their mental health.

He says at the fire department, educational work is being done so firefighters can build resiliency:  "What can we do for ourselves for that sort of framework of support that we need in our lives? Not just at work but outside of work."

"I want to include paramedics and police as well. It's taken its toll on everyone. Not just them but our families as well. We take our work home with us."

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A paramedic walks a woman into an ambulance on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside after firefighters administered her a dose of naloxone. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC News)

Another thing being tried out is more rotations of firefighters staffing the fire hall on the Downtown Eastside.

Fraser says normally a firefighter will spend two or three years stationed at a hall before transferring but the goal for firefighters there is to keep them there no longer than a year.

That hall is sometimes seeing 40 calls in a 14-hour shift, he says, and about 1,400 calls a month, "which is unbelieveable."

'Compassion fatigue'

Another big issue, Fraser says, is "compassion fatigue" which comes from sometimes treating the same people time after time.

"It's that feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that what you do is not making a difference," he said. "For all of us … why we do it is we do want to make a difference. So, when we see that fail time and time again it does start to take its toll."

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First responders in Vancouver attend to an overdose patient after three doses of naloxone fail to revive him. (CBC)

One positive, for the Downtown Eastside at least, is more staff coming to that area, which Fraser says could make a difference.

But Fraser says many first responders think the overdose crisis is only going to get worse in the future.

"And that's a scary thought to have."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast


To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: First responders feeling 'helplessness and hopelessness' over overdose crisis