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'We’ve devoted ourselves and sacrificed ourselves': First responders must be vigilant of mental health issues says Amherst chief

Members of the Amherst Fire Department were joined by other emergency personnel in participating in the 15th Emergency Responders Memorial Service in Amherst on Oct. 21.
Members of the Amherst Fire Department were joined by other emergency personnel in participating in the 15th Emergency Responders Memorial Service in Amherst on Oct. 21. - Darrell Cole

Message delivered from Amherst’s 15th Emergency Responders Memorial Service

AMHERST, N.S. - Every day, first responders are running toward danger when most people run away. The emotional and mental toll of being there for others can sometimes be too much for them to take.

During the 15th Emergency Responders Memorial Service in Amherst on Oct. 21, the community was reminded of just how difficult the job can be on the mental health of those who go into danger as well as their families.

“Mental health is often something people don’t think about when it comes to the work police officers, firefighters and EHS do every day,” Amherst’s acting police chief Dwayne Pike said following the ceremony that saw fire, police, paramedics, correctional officers, legion and cadets march to Amherst First Baptist for a brief church service and then back to the fire department where several wreaths were laid.

“It has to be a priority. You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself. Our toolkit has changed in that we now have resources to learn how to be more resilient, how to bounce back and how to manage stressful situations.”

Pike said it’s also important to break down the barriers associated with mental health.

“We’re all human and we should be able to step out and say I’m having trouble and need some help,” Pike said. “It’s important to recognize that.”

Retired RCMP officer Mike Johnson, who is also Cumberland County’s emergency measures coordinator, said the past few years have been difficult ones for local first responders including the Moncton RCMP shootings of four years ago, the loss Const. Frank Deschenes last October in Memramcook, N.B. and the recent loss of two Fredericton police officers.

“We’re a first responder family and how fortunate we are to be part of that first responder family and how fortunate the community is to have that first responder family,” Johnson said. “Regardless of what happens, when we fall, one of the other departments will bring us back.

“We’re a big circle, including police, fire and EHS, and when one of us falls the other is there to bring us back from death’s door sometimes. The three of us together complete that circle and that sometimes sees us standing on the edge, defiant to that fall.”

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First responders have a tough job and see things no human being should see, Johnson said. It’s hard to package it up and put it away.

“Sometimes it’s later in life that at the most inappropriate moment you’re mind will unpack those things and bring them to the foreground. You’ll remember how you took care of things, but didn’t care of yourself.”

For Greg Jones, chief of the Amherst Fire Department, it’s important to remember all those who have served his department as those who continue to serve.

“It gives us a chance to reflect back on every day, but don’t say it enough,” Jones said. “The Amherst Fire Department was created in 1883, so this is the 135th anniversary of a fire fighting service in Amherst. When you think about how many people who have served in this department, protecting the property and people in this community, it’s amazing. There have been a lot of members who have gone through these doors.”

Jones, too, said there’s a high emotional cost for firefighters. At a moment’s notice, he said, his members can get a call to go out and deal with some very unpleasant situations.

“We’ve devoted ourselves and sacrificed ourselves to deal with things no matter what,” the chief said. “It’s also important for us as a department to be able to help our members respond to their mental health needs as they arise.”

darrell.cole@amherstnews.ca

Twitter: @ADNdarrell

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