Nova Scotia

Spryfield tragedy 'weighs heavily' on first responders, says deputy fire chief

Firefighters who responded to a fire that took the lives of seven children will receive ongoing mental health care to help them cope with that experience, says the deputy chief of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency.

'We don't know when stress symptoms or harm may manifest'

A member of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency inspects the house after the fire. (Robert Short/CBC)

Firefighters who responded to a fire that took the lives of seven children will receive ongoing mental health care to help them cope with that experience, says the deputy chief of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency.

About 30 firefighters were called to the scene of the fatal blaze Tuesday at 33 Quartz Dr. in the Spryfield area of Halifax.

Deputy fire Chief Dave Meldrum said traumatic incidents can have a significant impact on a firefighter's health, and can also affect family members.

"We don't know when stress symptoms or harm may manifest," he said. "Every individual is unique and everyone's response may be different."

The fire, which broke out in the early morning hours, killed seven children in the Barho family ranging in age from three months to 14 years old. 

Their father, Ebraheim, remained in an induced coma in a Halifax hospital Thursday and was said to be in critical, but stable condition. Their mother, Kawthar, was not physically injured.

Dave Meldrum, the deputy fire chief of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, encouraged people who want to donate money to give to the family of the victims rather than to first responders. (CBC)

Whenever a traumatic event occurs, a team of critical incident stress managers is deployed to the scene to immediately help firefighters, said Meldrum.

Afterward, the team follows the firefighters back to the station and conducts what's called a "defusing" — a conversation aimed at helping first responders understand their experience and recognize signs of potential stress injuries.

Days later, a full debriefing is conducted accompanied by formal and informal monitoring in the weeks and months that follow.

"We won't stop giving care until we're sure we've done everything we could," said Meldrum.

'You can't describe the trauma'

The chair of the board of the Tema Conter Foundation, an organization that helps first responders who have witnessed tragic events, said when tragedy involves children, the impact can run deep.

"Most of these guys would have families, kids of their own. If they don't have kids, they have nieces, nephews, friends with kids, et cetera," said Howard Conter.

"The trauma of seeing young people taken so quickly, and to think about having the magnitude of seven lives lost … you can't describe the trauma involved in this. So any person who has any involvement with children would find this very, very difficult."

Conter said the trust has offered its support to firefighters and ambulance personnel involved at the scene.

A forensic investigator examines the house where a fire claimed the lives of seven children. (Robert Short/CBC)

Halifax Fire has received many calls, emails and social media messages offering support, gifts and donations to firefighters who responded to the fire.

"The firefighters, you know, I can tell you, worked very hard and very effectively this week and they did make a difference. And still there was a tragedy and that weighs heavily on them," Meldrum said. 

"Knowing that the community supports them is so uplifting to them and so healing, so we appreciate it."

However, Meldrum and Conter also encouraged anyone who wishes to donate financially to do so to the family instead of firefighters.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet

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