Nova Scotia

PhD student hopes to help volunteer firefighters long after the fire goes out

A former volunteer firefighter in Wolfville, N.S., is now doing her PhD on how the unpaid work can impact people's mental health.

Robin Campbell served for 10 years as a volunteer; now she's studying the mental-health impact

Robin Campbell was a volunteer firefighter for 10 years and could still answer a call today. (CBC)

A former volunteer firefighter in Wolfville, N.S., is now doing her PhD on how the unpaid work can impact people's mental health.

Robin Campbell said when you're a firefighter, the danger doesn't end when the fire goes out.

"A lot of the time how firefighters, how first responders, cope with the calls and the things we deal with is we put it in a back shelf. We compartmentalize and then we don't necessarily want to talk or think about it again, because when we do, it brings us right back to that incident, whatever it was," she said.

Campbell says while the physical danger passes when the fire is out, the mental-health dangers start when everyone's gone home. (CBC)

About 90 per cent of firefighters in Nova Scotia are volunteers. They face the same physical dangers as paid firefighters, but they also face unique threats to their mental health. Campbell is now doing a PhD in health at Dalhousie University. She'll spend time in two volunteer-run rural stations in Nova Scotia, learning about their experiences.

Danger comes when you're alone

Campbell volunteered with the Wolfville Fire Department for 10 years. She remembers her first call came when she was 20 and studying in a library. Her pager blared, freaking everyone out.

"There was a car on fire in a garage. I was probably only in for a week when this happened. I was very, very fresh," she said.

As soon as the fire was out and the gear cleared and readied for the next fire, she went back to the library.

Robin Campbell is shown during a call to a fire. (Robin Campbell photo)

"It's really hard. When the call first comes in, adrenaline's pumping, you go do what you need to do. It's when you come down off of that, you go back home, back to school, back to work, and that's when you're sitting with your thoughts. And you're alone," she said.

Paid firefighters deal with the same stress, but on shifts, meaning they usually spend a few more hours in the fire station with their peers.

"We might not see each other again until a training night, or until a fire call. We don't necessarily know how other people are doing, because we don't see each other on a regular basis, the way you would on shift work," said Campbell.

Helping the heroes

That time can let anxiety, depression and addiction fester, she said. Volunteers are also on call all the time, which can make it harder to relax and recover in downtime.

Because they're volunteers, they're more likely to just walk away from firefighting, as they still have work to pay the bills.

"We have people struggling in isolation. We need to figure it out because it's people's lives. These people risk their lives for us," Campbell said.

The Wolfville Fire Department's motto also points to one of the challenges the volunteers face. (CBC)

If you've lived in or around Wolfville anytime in the last 45 years, Garth Regan has been quietly keeping you safe. The longtime volunteer firefighter has seen the toll it can take.

"In the fire service, you never know what you're going to see. And I've seen a lot," he said.

"It may cause you trouble. Not right away, but down the road. So what I suggest is if you've been at one of those [bad incidents] at one time, you do seek help."

Garth Regan started volunteering as a firefighter in about 1974. He still answers the call when one of his neighbours, near or far, has an emergency. (CBC)

He said people are more open to talking about the mental toll these days, compared to when he started.

Campbell will also look at if men and women need different types of help.

"It's a male-dominated field. It's a lot of masculine values in the fire services: the hero, stoic, don't show emotion. As a female, in some ways, trying to live up those masculine values can be difficult," she said.

Campbell said attitudes are slowly changing.

This photo hangs in the Wolfville Fire Department. It's a reminder of the physical dangers the volunteers face. (CBC)

"I think there's still a lot of silent people and a lot of people that hide their feelings because of the culture of the fire service," she said. "But I would say perhaps it's starting to open up a little, but we still have a long way to go with that."

Campbell said people do volunteer for decades because of all the good impacts it has on their mental health.

"It's one of the most incredible ways to give back to your community," she said. "That sense of purpose, that sense of meaning in what you do in your spare time."