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Case Study: The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs

Started Training: 2016

Staff Trained So Far: 9,639

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) represents the chief fire officers of the 441 municipal fire departments in the province of Ontario. These chief officers are ultimately responsible, by statute, for the management and delivery of fire, rescue, and emergency response to Ontario’s 14.5 million residents.

Why We Train in The Working Mind First Responders

In 2016, the OAFC noticed Ontario’s firefighters were raising issues related to mental health and wellness.

In response to their members’ concerns, the OAFC got in touch with the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to begin implementing new mental health supports for OAFC members and Ontario’s fire service.

“We as an organization decided to promote mental health and to provide better support when a member reaches out for help,” said Mark Berney, Fire Chief/Director of Scugog Fire and Emergency Service and Community Emergency Management Coordinator.

The OAFC introduced The Working Mind First Responders (TWMFR) program, which is designed to promote mental health and wellness while reducing the stigma around mental illness in first-responder settings. Individuals who take the training learn how to improve their short- and long-term mental health outcomes and reduce barriers to care. They are encouraged to seek access to care early on when problems arise, and they receive access to the tools and resources required to manage and support others who may be experiencing mental health problems.

“You know, it’s life, whether it be with our family, the schedules we run, or the stressors we face at work. It’s about developing the abilities and strategies to cope with these intense schedules and stressors,” Berney said.

Berney explained that firefighters build a second family within their organization, so whenever stressors affect one person, they may also affect the other members of the crew. Within this second family, firefighters tend to take on their team members’ stressors even as they carry their own.

“In the past, what was our coping strategy? You looked at each other and hoped that it would all go away,” he said. “And when you were asked by your partner how your day was you would say ‘Don’t ask me, I really don’t want to talk about it.’ You didn’t take the time to unpack what happened.”

Results

Since the introduction of TWMFR, the OAFC has trained 9,639 firefighters through the Train-The-Trainer program offered through the MHCC.

“We did two facilitator training classes and I think there might have been at least 30 and 40 participants,” Berney said. “I also delivered the program to my department and booked days off to deliver it around the province, as would the other instructors.”

Chief Berney was one of the first firefighters to come forward to become a TWMFR trainer with the OAFC. He was concerned that there were mental health problems throughout the service, but no one was really talking about it.

“What TWMFR really has done for us, in general, is that it has said that we are all human, we all have problems, and if you don’t have a good toolbox of coping strategies, it will affect your mental health. We all need to learn how to unpack mental health issues and use our coping strategies.”

Berney shared that what really stood out for him during training was when people volunteered to share their personal experiences.

“When you share your own stories, it just resonates, and that truly is the difference,” he said. “As a result, I can reflect upon finishing a class and a couple of firefighters caught me on the way out to express how they’ve been experiencing problems and were very appreciative of the tools I gave them. Sometimes participants emailed feedback to me to say that the training really helped them.”

Chief Berney stressed the need to have an ongoing conversation about mental health to help members make progress on their personal mental wellness journeys:

“One of my strategies is to talk about mental health on a regular basis and really support the conversation. This is really about changing the culture and how we approach mental health.”

Berney stressed that everyone should be teaching their families and the generations to come that they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about mental health. We should be paying as much attention to our mental health and wellness as we do our physical well-being.

What the Future Holds

The OAFC has made important progress on the issue of mental health, but their work isn’t done yet. Berney explained that one of the OAFC’s key focuses going forward is treatment.

“We’ve all taken good steps. The big thing now is treatment, and everybody wants to offer some kind of treatment program,” Berney said. “Looking at the treatment side, there’s so much going on out there. However, because everyone has different needs, only a professional can show us what treatment should look like.”

However, Berney noted that some people are still reluctant to seek treatment because of ongoing stigma surrounding mental health. “It is a reminder that although we’ve come so far, we still have a long way to go.”

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