British Columbia

No one knew retired firefighter 'Captain Bob' was struggling with PTSD. Now his peers are learning the signs

A cultural shift in the understanding of how PTSD can affect first responders hasn't necessarily reached people who have retired from careers as police, paramedics and firefighters. The union representing firefighters in Richmond is working to change that.

The union representing Richmond firefighters is extending PTSD training to retired members

Richmond firefighters work on a 2015 fire on Mitchell Island. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Bob Taylor was popular at the Richmond Fire Rescue. To many, even off the job, he was known simply as 'Captain Bob.'

"He was always larger than life. He'd come in, 'Hey boys' You know, [he was] there for a good time," said Jim Dickson, a firefighter who worked with Taylor for several years.

"Outwardly, you would never know he was struggling with any sort of mental health issue — mind you we weren't looking either. It was not something you would talk about," said Dickson.

In mid-October, about a decade after retiring from the department, Taylor took his own life. The cause of suicides are rarely simple, but according to a family member, Taylor had been struggling with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With his death front-of-mind, other retired members of the department are now getting some valuable PTSD awareness training.

Bob Taylor is pictured with his daughter, Christy Judd. (Christy Judd)

If 'Captain Bob' were an active firefighter in Richmond today, he would have had access to two days of training, organized by the union along with the department. He would have joined his crew in getting training on mental health awareness and resiliency.

But his career spanned a different era. According to Dickson, who serves as treasurer for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1286 and helps run PTSD awareness training, there used to be a different strategy for coping with traumatic calls.

"If you were lucky, you were relieved from duty, which then meant, 'Hey free night to go hit the pub,'" he said. "It would be alcohol use, typically, some black humour.

Jim Dickson, Richmond firefighter and treasurer for IAFF Local 1286, says a major shift has taken place in recent years in how firefighters understand — and deal with — traumas associated with the job. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"The last thing you were going to do was admit that that was still bothering you. You just put that down where all the other feelings went to die, and then you find that 30 years later perhaps that comes up."

The culture has changed. According to Dickson, that change is as recent as the last five years. 

In an effort to reach retired members of the department, Dickson is organizing sessions at the union hall.

On Thursday, Dickson was preparing for as many as 30 retired firefighters he expected to fill the room.

Jim Dickson prepares for a PTSD awareness session the IAFF Local 1286 is providing for retired Richmond firefighters. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Dickson said there was no way he could get retired folks in for two days of PTSD training, mirroring what active members get, so he has condensed the material into a couple of hours. And he's thrilled with the level of interest the session has been getting.

"It really shows the willingness to embrace this idea that we are human, and that sometimes we need help," he said.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free: 1-833-456-4566.
Text: 45645.
Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca.

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.


Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker