By Greg Price
Many films have been lauded in recent weeks with the Golden Globes and the upcoming Oscars in February, but one of the most important films one can see around here for local impact is an upcoming public screening of ‘The Other Side of the Hero.’
Daryl Hopkins of the Taber Fire Department has a daughter who is a dispatcher in the County of Grande Prairie area, and after going through a few tough calls, she has been trying to raise awareness of things like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and mental health awareness for first responders.
“She came across this documentary and it was made by Enrico Colantini who was one of the stars from the TV show Flashpoint. Between him and some other independent filmmakers, they went ahead and built this documentary. They worked with police officers, EMS, fire departments and different first responders, and they were able to see the other side of the hero if you will,” said Nathan Cote, deputy fire chief for the Town of Taber. “It keys in on how ‘the job’ that they do takes an effect on the first responders themselves. Families and the public can learn from a film like this.”
When someone picks up the phone and dials 9-1-1, whether they need police, fire, EMS, whichever, they view people as professionals.
“For rural fire departments, they are all volunteers. We are no different from anyone else in this community, be it school teachers, to the banker to the newspaper reporter. They are volunteer Regular Joes,” said Cote. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the people they are calling for help are everyday people and the incidents we go to are definitely going to take their toll.”
One of the longest serving volunteers on the Taber Fire Department, Clarence Bos, probably knows better than most the stresses of the job, while also serving as chaplain in helping his fellow department firefighters in dealing with the hardships of the job. Bos has already watched the documentary when it was aired earlier this month for first responders at the Taber Evangelical Free Church, and it evoked some emotion.
“I certainly could relate to a lot of the things the individuals were experiencing. Doing this for 28-some years, I’ve experienced quite a bit in a different number of traumatic scenes which have had a huge impact on me in terms of my everyday life and how it impacts me at home,” said Bos. “It all ties together with my performance at the job, too. I took a personal interest in getting involved (as chaplain) to help raise awareness within the emergency responder community. There is a lot of talk about mental health and stress, yet there is still that stigma out there where people are afraid to talk about it. This film helps open up that conversation and it’s good for the public to watch the film, because it helps them relate to the emergency responder, not in the firehouse, but in everyday life.”
When Bos first started as a volunteer firefighter, there was the ‘glamour’ of doing what they do in helping people. Looked at as ‘heroes’ in some respects, it can be an adrenaline rush for volunteers where firefighters believe their own press clippings. But, several traumatic calls later involving things like child deaths or hardships for people who they know, and the facade fades.
“After years of those types of calls, all the sudden, you wake up and say ‘I don’t feel like a hero anymore.’ Yet the public perception can still be that. So now you have that expectation that you can’t have any vulnerability. I’m the helper and I shouldn’t be asking for help because people are asking me to help them,” said Bos. “You’re wearing sort of a mask, where you have to portray a persona that says you are OK, that I’m strong enough. Inwardly, I’m not feeling that. I’m feeling terrible, where there are pains, but I have a smile I’m hiding behind. There are a lot of first responders who wear that mask that don’t want to be vulnerable.”
That type of attitude can have serious repercussions. One in four paramedics in Canada will develop PTSD in the course of their careers, and the suicide rates amongst paramedics are five times the national average (CBC). Results from Canada’s first national survey (2017) looking at operational stress injuries among first responders such as police, paramedics, firefighters and 9-1-1 operators suggest they are much more likely to develop a mental disorder than the general population. A 2018 study published in the in the U.S. (medium.com) shows first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Even if it is not the most tragic of endgame outcomes, the stress of first responders can be brought home to their loved ones and friends.
“We focus on the PTSD, but there are a lot of other things we need to focus on like compassion fatigue, burnout, there’s vicarious traumatization, there is cumulative stress and trauma we deal with,” said Bos. “It doesn’t become a disorder, but they are segments of mental health injury that we can be bringing home to our family and friends.”
“Thankfully, as the years have gone on, that stigma is beginning to lessen a bit. Back say 30 years ago, you went to call and that was it, you suck it up. You were almost looked down upon if you talked about things like that,” added Cote. “Now, we are showing there is help for people and we can talk about these things. First responders are all about being a team and bringing us together and shedding some light towards PTSD and mental health injuries. Things like this documentary have opened the conversation and opened people’s eyes.”
In the olden days, there would be critical incident stress debriefing. It would be done after a horrific call. Bos recalls doing about a half dozen of those in 20 years. Often it is viewed, once you do one of those, it’s good enough.
“You assumed all the broken pieces are put back together again, and that wasn’t the truth. That is just the tip of the iceberg. What I’m seeing is we need to do a lot more training and be a lot more proactive in terms of equipping our people and making them aware of the stresses of the job and how to deal with those stresses and not take certain parts of the job home with them,” said Bos. “Often we take it home where we have a stressful day and we may be more irritable and all the sudden you are lashing out at your partner and your kids. Then it ‘oops, I didn’t mean that.’ It also about making the families more aware. The film can make our families and our friends more aware in what it is that we go through as emergency first responders and maybe they can spot things within us like maybe some personality changes with some triggers.”
A public showing of ‘The Other Side of the Hero’ goes on Saturday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. at the Taber Evangelical Free Church. The documentary has a run time of around 90 minutes. Pop and popcorn will be served.
The screening is free to the public, but the Taber Fire Department will be taking donations, with proceeds going towards attending or hosting a critical incident stress management course.
To get a free ticket for the screening, you can either show up at the door or log onto http://www.eventbrite.ie/e/other-side-of-hero-film-tickets-53354072467.
“Our main goal is to raise awareness for mental health injuries,” said Cote.