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Dispatches: Honouring and triggering

September 18, 2019
By Jennifer Grigg

In June my husband and I drove to British Columbia from our home in Ontario. I was speaking at the BC Association of Fire Chaplains (BCAFC) conference and we decided to make it a working vacation. We’ve done the trip to Alberta with our two teenaged daughters, our two Labs, and my elderly mom a couple of times to visit family so we knew we’d thoroughly enjoy the road trip.

On the way up Hwy. 69, about an hour from home, we passed a steel silhouette of a boy playing the drums, a memorial for a life gone too soon. The image made me wonder, what does it do to the firefighters, police officers and paramedics that responded to that call who regularly drive by?

When I drive northbound or southbound on Hwy. 400 where I live (from Port Severn to Mactier), I’m reminded of the calls that I’ve responded to in my two decades as a volunteer with Georgian Bay Township and especially the ones that have a monument. On occasion I’m able to pass these places without memories surfacing say, if I’m lost in thought or in a song on the radio. Other times I’m not so lucky.

The spot with the cross and the name on it, for example, I never forget. Each detail of that transport fire that claimed the life of a fella I never met named Danny are etched into my mind so vividly I can faintly hear the fire crackling as I type this. I know I’m not the only one.

The firefighter I was with has a similar haunting reaction to that same spot. (Rest assured I’ll give her the heads up about this column so as to avoid triggering any further trauma.)

Mitigating post-traumatic stress is everyone’s job and it doesn’t stop after you’ve left the fire department, the call or the fire hall. That was my first fire fatality (vehicle or otherwise) and it will never go away. It doesn’t traumatize me to think about it, but it will most definitely always be there, lingering in the back of my brain ready to float forward each time I pass that place on the northbound side of the highway.

As my husband and I drove, we saw many locations that are now etched upon the minds of loved ones and emergency services personnel. It got us thinking about the effect these memorials have on first responders. My husband has been in the fire service a few years longer than I and has witnessed more than his share of the unthinkable.

It’s become common practice for family members and friends to mark the place where a tragedy changed their lives forever and for them it’s what they need to do to honour those they’ve lost. For us though, it’s repeated exposure to trauma. It really is a health and safety issue because we’re all aware of the wide range of side effects that these calls can cause. But how do you mitigate it?

My husband was reading an interesting article in the Toronto Star — “PTSD concerns take centre stage after firefighters’ refusal to clean up traumatic scene led to more Hwy. 400 chaos — dated July 17 and written by Jeremy Grimaldi. The journalist wrote, “According to a source who used to work for York Region police, Vaughan Fire refused to attend the scene when called at 4:35 p.m. for a “washdown” — a first-responder term for removing blood, vehicle fluids and other remnants from the roadway.”

The article further noted that Vaughan Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi said “the department denied this was the case, explaining the service chose not to attend for multiple reasons, although she said the “safety of our citizens and emergency workers” plays a role in each decision. “We understand the pressures of getting the highway open as soon as possible,” she said, “but it needs to be tempered with humanizing and ethical decision-making processes.”

I applaud her efforts and wonder how many other fire departments can and will take similar action.

The job of a firefighter is to save lives and at times they will face unimaginable circumstances. There will be exposure to extreme situations and that can’t be changed, but fire departments have teams and processes in place to help navigate the harmful after effects when this happens. I hope that ALL fire departments in Ontario have some sort of peer support team in place, or at the very least use their local CISM team or other resources when needed.

What can possibly be done about the long-standing reminders — the crosses, the statues, the plaques and the flowers on the roadside — that not only serve as dedications to loved ones but as devastating triggers to those that tried to help but weren’t able to.

Our trip across the western provinces of Canada was a beautiful journey, and the same can be said for the majority of our time in the fire service. However, for all of us in emergency services there will always be those places along the highway, those moments frozen in time, that will flash back into our minds and cause us to pause and reflect. In some cases, the memories are now just memories. They are definitely unpleasant and something we’d rather not have seen if given the choice but they no longer rattle us to the core like they used to.

But for some, they still do.


Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, FPO inspector and instructor. She is now a resilience and empowerment coach and certified body language trainer. Contact Jennifer at jennygrigg312@gmail.com or jennifergriggcoaching.com.