Volunteer firefighter explores post-traumatic stress for PhD

Amanda Brazil has a unique and very personal perspective on the research she's doing for her UPEI PhD focusing on the effect of stressful calls on volunteer firefighters — she's a five-year veteran of the Cross Roads Fire Department.

'It's okay to talk about these things because we're all experiencing it'

Amanda Brazil has been a volunteer firefighter with the Cross Roads Fire Department for the last five years and that inspired her PhD research. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Amanda Brazil has a unique and very personal perspective on the research she's doing for her UPEI PhD focusing on the effect of stressful calls on volunteer firefighters — she's a five-year veteran of the Cross Roads Fire Department.

Brazil has experienced traumatic incidents first-hand, and reflected on those incidents and how she managed them.

I want it to become a culture of sharing and support.— Amanda Brazil

"As first responders, or as volunteer firefighters, how do we learn what a critical incident is?" explained Brazil. "Then, how do we learn how we manage those and respond to those"

"Because it's not necessarily an explicit learning. It's something that we figure out as we go along."

Definitions of distress

Brazil has surveyed 102 of her peers from five departments to find out what factors increase the severity of critical incident fire calls.

"The definition that I used a critical or traumatic incident is any event outside the usual realm of human experience that is markedly distressing," she said.

Defining what is critical or traumatic is subjective, Brazil said

"It doesn't mean that there had to have been fatalities."

Cross Roads Fire Chief Ron Young says it's important for his volunteer firefighters to take time to debrief after a critical incident call. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Cross Roads fire chief Ron Young calls Brazil's work "important", acknowledging that he too has experienced critical or traumatic reactions.

"I have experienced some, after major calls to fires and car accidents and medical calls. It's important to do a debriefing after with everybody."

'Most people have had numerous exposures'

Brazil's survey revealed 35 per cent of the volunteer firefighters felt they had been exposed to more than 20 critical incidents. Ten per cent had experienced between 13 and 20, and 50 per cent had experienced between one and 12.

"What we're seeing is that most people have had numerous exposures," summarized Brazil.

She also asked them to rate the factors that made an incident more critical or traumatic, including extreme weather, accessing the scene, having friends and family of the victim present on the scene, the types of information they received from dispatch, even the equipment they had while responding.

For example, she discovered that 80 per cent said that being first on the scene could increase the severity of stress.

Volunteer experience is different

Brazil learned 65 per cent of the firefighters she surveyed had no training in critical incidents or PTSD, but most indicated it would be beneficial at individual departments or at the fire school.

Brazil's research is unique in that most of the literature on PTSD and firefighters focuses on professionals and not volunteers, even though volunteers make up 85 per cent of the firefighters in Canada.

She also heard from Island volunteers who said they have experienced distress after a call because of the nature of firefighting in a very small community.

"You don't know who you're responding to and more often than not, you'll know them somehow," said Brazil.

"Or somebody in your department will know this person and it could be family, it could be friends, and that really does make it more difficult."

'We're all experiencing it'

Most departments are making efforts to provide debriefing, said Brazil, giving firefighters an opportunity to come together or meet one-on-one to talk about their experiences. Her ultimate goal is to keep that dialogue going.

Amanda Brazil says the survey is the groundwork for the next stage of her thesis that will involve interviewing Island firefighters. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"We can talk about this, we can talk about how we're feeling, we can talk about what's next. And should somebody need extra help, I want it to become a culture of sharing and support," explained Brazil.

"It's okay to talk about these things because we're all experiencing it."

Brazil will use the survey results as groundwork for her dissertation, which will focus on interviews with Island firefighters.

She will present the results of her study at the Canadian Sociological Association Conference in Calgary in June.