Canadian Firefighter Magazine

From the Editor: October 2019

Laura Aiken   

Features editors pick firefighter Laura Aiken

Merging realities

Is your reality and my reality the same? Chances are we agree when the sky is blue and the leaves are green, but this doesn’t really encapsulate life. Reality is also a set of expectations and powerful beliefs in the mind, beliefs that help construct the narrative of your sensory perception. Imagine if that cohesive story were to fall apart. What if you lost pieces of your narrative reality or could not interpret the data coming from another as that person would expect? Some people’s mind-bodies are tragic displays of entropy run wild, order to disorder on a continuum without a cure.

Autism, forms of dementia and hoarding are some of the mind-body afflictions that suggest the person’s way of perceiving the world may be unique to you or I in a manner that vitally impacts communication. As first responders, effective communication with the people they are trying to save can become what is vital.

It seems logical that firefighters at work will encounter some of society’s most vulnerable at a more frequent rate than the general public. For example, people with dementia are more likely to be forgetful and start fires than the average person without a significant memory disorder. The homes of people who hoard are full of health and safety threats. From articles submitted and proposed to me, it appears the conversation around how to best approach people who are autistic, have dementia or hoard is growing. Although in a different realm of maladies, PTSD, psychosis, schizophrenia and those on the brink of suicide fall under a similar conversational umbrella. These are all things that alter the way the mind pieces together its narrative reality and they all can increase the danger to oneself and in some cases to others. As mental health has come to the forefront of the fire service, up there with cancer and heart disease as a top concern, it is ever more relevant for firefighters to be equipped with the communication skills to help those with ailments that affect the mind.

Compassion and calm can do no wrong, but they might not be all firefighters need in their response kit. In our article on page 14, Ben Wilson, captain of fire prevention at the Surrey Fire Service in British Columbia and the father of a child with autism, highlights solid strategies for responding to a person with autism in an emergency situation. Please read it and learn more about why autism awareness is so important. In a much broader sense, firefighters need people awareness as a part of situational awareness. Encountering someone who may be perceiving things differently than you at a radically altered level requires a skilled response.


A firefighter can never be sure exactly what they are walking into on a call. It seems wise to expect the unexpected. In much the way that the HERO sticker can indicate where the children are in a house, it seems ideal that there be some way to access more information about the disabilities of a scene’s inhabitants. Perhaps a national database is far-fetched, but to have that information at a first responder’s fingertips seems entirely useful. It would be ideal if there was a way for firefighters to know automatically the vulnerabilities of those they encounter. Imagine if this information consistently came through 911?

In its absence, spreading information is the best we can do and Canadian Firefighter is proud to be a forum for the conversation.

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