First Responders Fitness Festival: Inaugural event unites firefighters, police, paramedics and the community
By Brittani SchroederFeatures canadian firefighter editors pick firefighter firefighter training mental health wellness
What do you get when members of the fire service, paramedics and law enforcement come together? You get a new event that unites the community and raises awareness and money for first responder physical and mental health.
So how did it all start?
Chris Harris has worked for the Saskatoon Police Service for 17 years. In 2020, fellow officer Angela McEwen was watching The Spartan Games series with Harris on YouTube. “This event brought together 12 men and 12 women from across a number of different racing backgrounds and pitted them against each other in a four-day, multi-event competition,” says Harris.
As Harris and McEwen watched the event, they wondered, “What if the event was police versus firefighters versus paramedics?” From there, the pair were off and running.
There were many challenges to overcome. To start, Harris and McEwen had no credibility or formula to go off of. Questions they needed to answer included: what events are we going to do, how many events and how hard should it be?
Next, they needed to find a venue. The two officers talked about logistics and finally decided on an indoor space, because October in Saskatchewan “can be too unpredictable.” Then, another challenge came in the form of finding the equipment for the obstacles and getting them to the venue.
How were Harris and McEwen going to get athletes to buy into this new event? “We were such an unknown product, and we didn’t want to reveal too much about what the athletes would be doing because we felt it may scare them off or intimidate them,” says Harris. “We were at a point where we almost had to shelve the idea for a year and try it again later, because we didn’t think we could get the numbers or the buy-in we needed.”
They needed money. They needed community support. They needed prizes, sponsors and donations. Essentially, Harris and McEwen needed everything.
How were they going to pull it off?
The YXE First Responders Fitness Festival (YXE FRFF) was Harris’s and McEwen’s baby, but they knew they couldn’t do it on their own. “We knew we needed people at the table from each profession,” Harris says.
Enter Amy Buettner, a firefighter, who was approached and took on the principal role for the fire service.
Buettner is originally from Saskatoon, and after her time at university, she pursued her dream of a career in emergency services. She worked as a ground and medivac medic for several years before becoming a full-time firefighter. She’s motivated by serving her community, the adrenaline and ever-changing day-to-day duties, and the brotherhood among the first responders.
Buettner was immediately drawn to both the cause and the concept of the event. “I got an internal work email looking for volunteers, and I was intrigued. When I showed up to the first meeting, it was very clear that the event was in its incipient phase, so I stepped right up as the fire liaison within the committee. It was amazing to see how well the fire, police and EMS reps worked together,” she says.
McEwen knew paramedics Beaumont Sinclair and Nathan Rollack from her CrossFit gym, and when they were approached with the idea, they jumped on board, as competitors and as committee members.
The committee recognized the importance of having a charitable component to the event.
At another event, McEwen had raised money for OSI-CAN, an operational stress injury/post-traumatic stress support initiative whose mission is to inspire hope and contribute to the continuous well-being and recovery process of veterans and front line protectors. “We were creating a first responders’ event, and first responder mental health is such an important and prominent issue in today’s climate,” says Harris.
The team reached an agreement with OSI-CAN that, although the charity is national, the money that was raised—which reached over $25,000—would stay in Saskatchewan and go toward programming there.
Skills training is of the utmost importance for a firefighter, but the physical and mental health side of things are arguably just as key.
This event was a success in a variety of ways.
First, the event boosted morale within the first responder services because it brought people together for a common goal—people who otherwise may not have come together or gotten to know each other.
The event featured 20 people from each service who participated in group workouts, motivating each other, and helping each other out with equipment, diet, concerns, advice and more. “Twenty brother and sister firefighters from our department came together, from all battalions, that maybe wouldn’t have had the opportunity to spend that much time together. We really showed up as a team,” says Buettner. “Hearing the feedback from coworkers, superiors and management about how we can only improve for next year is a treat. When you can inspire even one person to make a change, just simply from attending an event, that’s a real success.”
The YXE FRFF boosted pride in the participants’ jobs, because they knew they were representing their respective services. “We had so many athletes coming up to us and thanking us for letting them be a part of it. I know for me, when I was sitting around on the Sunday night after it was over, eating and drinking with a bunch of participants from all three organizations, it made me really proud to be a first responder. I know others felt the same,” says Harris.
By hosting this event, firefighters, paramedics and police got to show how athletic they are, and how athletic they need to be to work in the three professions. But it also showed the community that they are just regular people. “Many people just see the uniform first and the person second, and I think this helped to change that,” says Harris.
Similarly, the event showed each first responder the human side of their colleagues. “When we go to calls and see each other in the field, it’s always business first, or a horrible circumstance. By seeing each other in this environment, you get to know people for who they are rather than what they do. The next time you come across them, there’s a sense of familiarity, and it makes the interaction more positive overall,” Harris says.
In the fire service, the phrase “Train as if your life depends on it, because it does” is quite familiar. Skills training is of the utmost importance for a firefighter, but the physical and mental health side of things are arguably just as key. “Going into this event, we trained twice a week as a team to prepare for any weaknesses, bond as a team and mentally prepare for the multiple events we were going to see over the competition weekend,” says Buettner.
The Saskatoon fire union, department and staff are all on board for next year’s event, with many members saying they’re interested and going to train for next year in hopes of getting a spot on the team. “The positive fallout regarding the continuation of training has been great too, with a lot of us increasing our training loads at our sponsor gym in the city. We’ve even seen some non-athletes joining in to better themselves after experiencing the fitness festival,” she says.
The community support
To pull it all together, over 65 local businesses sponsored the event in some way. Donations ranged from equipment to money, prizes and time. “From having nothing at the beginning to seeing the support the community threw behind the event was awe inspiring,” says Harris.
The committee offered each sponsor a booth to promote their product or services. There were massage and physio clinics offering free treatment for the athletes in between events. Food companies also donated meals for volunteers.
The event also aided in changing the community’s perceptions of first responders. “While the Saskatoon firefighters, police and paramedics know we work closely together, the public may not realize the amount that we interact daily. This event gave the public a chance to see the three services together, working towards a common goal and charity while participating in some intense competition. Showing the public that the emergency services family who respond to the incidents in the city are ready to work mentally, physically and as a team was top of mind for this event, and I think the YXE FRFF captured that over the course of the weekend,” says Buettner.
Harris had some words of advice for others who may be interested in creating a similar event. “Be organized. Be professional. Be committed,” says Harris. This became another full-time job for the committee members, and they put hundreds of hours of their own time into this event. Harris would recommend not doing anything second rate.
When the event was over, the team stood back and looked at each other in disbelief at what they had accomplished, says Harris. “Our agencies needed something like this. The chiefs of all three agencies basically demanded that we do it again, which is ultimately the plan. The sense of wellness it promoted, both mental and physical, was also felt so intensely, we think every major city in Canada would benefit from an event like this.”
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