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COMMENTARY: Firefighting trauma goes beyond statistics

'My story is not unique — it is culture-wide'

First let's note that even writer James Culic must have felt the undercurrent of poor research, preparedness and craftsmanship of his article, "Niagara doesn’t need all these fire chiefs", as even he offers up, "... how to yell at him at the bottom of this page, or pull the alarm and write an incendiary letter to the editor." once his readers got to the bottom of his, ahem, article.
Allow me to start provide some context around which I write this: I re-read James Culic's article twice and actually put it, and my keyboard, away so that I would write under cooler circumstances.

I am a chief of 25 years, having started in a small mountain volunteer department, and then through the ranks in the US, including a firefighter/ACP medic in an urban setting Oakland California, (in the US the firefighters run all of the emergency medical calls —something that is starting to happen here in Canada as well), then as a training chief in CalFire (core mission is wildland fire), then the Deputy Chief of Training in Lambton Shores, Ontario, a rural/semi-rural/suburban mix.

I'm also very involved in the North American fire service, often speaking out against firefighter cliches and challenge fire service tropes. So, seeing an article the ilk of Culic's is not unusual except in how extraordinarily tone deaf, editorialized and ill-informed it is.

While I'd be more than happy to have an extended dialogue going over what he has wrong, that'd be a grocery list, so I will leave these generalities:

  1. Police hierarchal structure is different than fire, hence the reason why you often see the one police chief/several district fire chiefs' scenario.

  2. There is actually not one police chief in Niagara, there are three: one each for Niagara Regional Police, the RCMP, and the OPP.

  3. Fire chiefs are leaving positions because there's not enough of them to fill current positions.

  4. Just plugging one chief into picking up the duties of a second, and if Culic had his way a third, fourth and fifth chief's duties is so logistically unrealistic that I can only illustrate by offering up this: who does he think is going to fulfill all of the critical ancillary duties that one chief at one department does? The Community Risk Reduction plans, the master fire plans, the HR issues, hiring, recruiting, officer and chief development programs, community outreach. Other chiefs do, that's who. As the scope of the organization and the chief's duties expand, so too does the number of assistant and deputy chiefs. With that I offer up bullet #3 above.

Finally, a point I took very personally: he is indeed correct about firefighting not being considered "dangerous" (his quotation marks, incidentally. Their placement and the sarcasm intended with them was in very poor taste), at least on the list in self-reporting systems like Occupational Safety and Health. What he is incorrect about is his assumption that firefighters report everything. Anecdotally I have not reported: working with broken fingers; a herniated disc; several shifts with a severed bicep tendon; and, most importantly a sleep-deprivation induced/high acuity call volume (i.e., tons of very, very bad emergency calls)/organizational failure bout with (now life-long) PTSD that had me literally standing on the edge of the Napa River as it was springtime raging, reading to jump. Only a kind voice at the other end of the phone saved me.

These were never reported, and my story is not unique — it is culture-wide. Just so we truly understand, standing in the kind of smoke that one exposure will lead to occupational cancer, working untethered from heights, the bending twisting shards of metal and glass at auto wreck calls, bodies misshapen into blobs of jelly made up of bone and blood — and still breathing and talking, asking to tell loved ones they were thinking of them—and the horrible, horrible, toll the job takes on all of firefighter's relationships, does indeed make this profession a truly, significantly dangerous job. I have no idea what the cultural temperature is in those other occupations that have a higher listing as dangerous, but firefighter culture is still very much, "suck it up, the job's gotta get done. This is life or death at any moment's notice."

In signing off I first offer Culic to go through even a weekend's worth of robust fire training. Better yet, a full week. Judging by his piece I daresay he has no concept of what it takes to even get the job, much less do it for 25 years.

Dave Robertson
North Vancouver, BC