Four out of five firefighters will suffer a stress-related illness or absence sometime in their career, Toronto Fire Chief Jim Sales told attendees at APA’s Annual Convention in Toronto. “As of yesterday, I had 87 staff on long-term disability, and 60 percent of those are stress or anxiety related.”
In 2015, 29 first responders in the city have died by suicide and the Toronto Fire Service, which lost a firefighter to suicide in February, averages one to three suicides per year. A lack of mental health support from the department is partly responsible, said Sales. “Historically, fire services haven’t looked at the mental health side, at the ability to cope with the stress [firefighters] find on the job each and every day.”
Sales aims to turn that around by boosting mental health support throughout the department. Consulting with the Canadian Mental Health Commission and police, he is working to improve firefighters’ access to mental health services, enhance peer support programs, educate supervisors on how to provide support and create sick-leave policies that support mental health needs.
The fire service will also be committed to eliminating the shame often associated with seeking mental health services among firefighters, he said. “There’s a stigma attached to telling your boss or coworkers that you’re having an issue with a call — it’s considered weak,” he said. “We need to change that philosophy and make it understood that these things impact us all.”
Shift work can also add to the stress of an already-stressful profession. Toronto firefighters work eight 24-hour shifts per month, which can be hard on their families and make it difficult for supervisors to spot signs of mental distress. The department will build a health and wellness center that families can access and implement 24-hour follow-ups and check-ins with firefighters who have gone out on particularly difficult emergency calls.
“We want to be a leader in this area,” Sales said. “The old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? We need to be investing in that ounce.”