'It's not good enough': Rural Alberta's first responders need help handling trauma, peer network says

For two years, veteran firefighter Cammie Laird couldn’t bring herself to drive past the Alberta farm where three sisters were smothered to death by canola seed while playing on the back of a truck.

Request made for province to provide annual funding for mental health support

This piece of art by paramedic Daniel Sundahl shows a paramedic sitting with his head in his hands after finding a child who died in a car crash. (Daniel Sundahl)

For two years, veteran firefighter Cammie Laird couldn't bring herself to drive past the central Alberta farm where three sisters were smothered to death by canola seed while playing on the back of a truck.

Revisiting that rural road meant revisiting the trauma the retired Clearwater County fire chief experienced on that call in the fall of 2015.

"My husband drove me down it two years later, and it was just silence because he had been at that call too," she said. "I got to the other end, and I was in tears.

"And I said 'wow.' I said 'but at least we did it.'"

Laird still feels the weight of the girls' deaths more than three years later. She developed post traumatic stress disorder, triggered by that harrowing call.

Cammie Laird worked as a firefighter for more than 35 years. (Cammie Laird)

"PTSD, it's not something that you just sort of get over like a cold," said Laird, who learned how to handle the stress over time.

"It was cumulative then for me. Because I literally started going backwards and revisiting ... a triple digit number of people that I had actually put in body bags."

She leaned on counselling and her family, but said more support is needed for first responders working outside of Alberta's major centres.

"In this career, we won't get out without having been affected," said Laird, who has 35 years of firefighting experience under her belt.

"What I've told my own members over the years is, we give a great gift every time we arrive on scene. But those gifts come at a cost, and the cost is sometimes your mental health."

First responders helping their own

Laird is part of the Alberta Critical Incident Provincial Network, which is driven by first responders hoping to make mental health support more accessible in rural communities.
Cammie Laird is the retired fire chief of Clearwater County, about 160 kilometres west of Red Deer. (Cammie Laird)

The peer support program was started about a year ago to help fill a hole that became apparent when firefighters who battled the Fort McMurray wildfire returned home, said Jeff Sych, ACIPN's clinical director.

"When they went back to their home community, there weren't supports and services for them. And we found that a lot of people were reporting significant struggles," said Sych, a psychologist who works with first responders, and helped Laird work through her trauma.

"The majority of our firefighters actually work in these very small centres where they don't have the access to these resources that are appropriate to help them stay healthy and/or recover from the impact."

ACIPN has trained about 300 firefighters to provide psychological first aid in person or over the phone. Individual first responders or entire emergency response departments can request support, and the peer support team is deployed.

Over the past two months, ACIPN has gotten 11 requests for peer support from individuals and entire fire departments.

The first responders who are part of the team are all volunteers.

"These are people, front-line individuals who can recognize in their colleagues the impact that responding to a critical incident or the stress of their job has and help that person recover from it and/or stay healthy," said Sych, who noted first responders have high rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and relationship problems.

Registered psychologist Jeff Sych is the clinical director for the Alberta Critical Incident Provincial Network.

But Sych and Laird said the program in its current form isn't sustainable, as it relies heavily on donated time and resources.

ACIPN submitted a grant proposal to the province in early December, seeking $600,000 per year in funding.

The goal is to provide ongoing training and support, and the opportunity for emergency response departments to develop their own psychological first aid and resilience programs, Sych said.

The funding would also help expand the program to train and support other emergency personnel, like paramedics and police, and professionals who are part of ski patrol, search and rescue and hospital staff.

"I'm hoping … with the right, you know, funding and the programming in place, that it's going to be there for anybody who needs it. Because mine, at least, is a happy story where I can say 'okay, at the end I came through this, I'm stronger, I found a purpose,'" Laird said, highlighting how some people turn to suicide.

"It's not good enough the way it is right now. We've got to do it better."

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the Canadian Mental Health Association's 24-hour distress line at 780-482-4357. First responders can get in touch with the ACIPN team at 780-953-2476.


Anna McMillan


Anna McMillan is a reporter at CBC Edmonton. You can reach her at anna.mcmillan@cbc.ca