British Columbia

Wildfire fighters need to be aware of signs of PTSD, says first responder

As the B.C. wildfire season quickly approaches, a former first responder says more needs to be done to help firefighters deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

'Trauma is a never-ending conveyor belt. It just keeps on going,' says trauma instructor.

Michael Swainson was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009. Now he teaches a course on how first responders can cope with trauma. (CBC News)

As the B.C. wildfire season approaches, a former first responder says more needs to be done to help firefighters deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Michael Swainson instructs a course called Rescue 1, which offers trauma education, preparation and coping strategies for first responders. Swainson spent 25 years as a paramedic, emergency dispatcher and volunteer firefighter. 

He was officially diagnosed with PTSD in January 2009, but says he knew something was wrong three years before the diagnosis. He hopes his course will help first responders recognize and prepare for the signs of PTSD. 

"When you put your life on the line and you almost die or you get seriously injured in a fire, that's a trauma that you have a very, very hard time dealing with. It's something you're never going to forget," Swainson told Wil Fundal, guest host of Daybreak North

Swainson says his course aims to prepare first responders for when they have to respond to a bad call, like an accident or vicious fire.

"Trauma is a never-ending conveyor belt. It just keeps on going, and going, and going and going. And it will hit you," said Swainson. 

"If you're ready and if you've developed some psychological body armour by taking some awareness training and prevention training,then it's going to make it easier for you and you're going to be prepared."

Firefighters who risk their lives or sustain severe injuries can experience long-term trauma, says Michael Swainson. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

First responder culture

When something traumatic does happen on the job, Swainson says it's important to seek outside help rather than keep quiet about what you're experiencing.

Many fire halls have a work culture that expects bravery. But bravery does not mean "sucking it up" and keeping quiet, he says.

"It's the exact opposite. If you're a firefighter [or] if you're a police officer and you put your hand up and say, 'the traumatic stress is starting to get to me and I need some help,' that's an extraordinarily brave thing to do in the first responder culture."

Swainson says while the culture in these workplaces has started to change, some places still have a "move-forward-and-forget-about-it" mentality. This will have negative effects on a first responder, he says.

Police chiefs and fire chiefs need to work to change the culture in workplaces, says Swainson. New attitudes toward being open about trauma will funnel down to employees from those in leadership roles.

Listen to the full interview here:

With files by Daybreak North.


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