RELATIONSHIPSFirehouseVulnerability Within the Fire Service

Vulnerability Within the Fire Service

By: Steve Farina, Executive Vice President of British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Association

What does “vulnerability” mean to you as a First Responder? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? After over 30 years in the fire service, I can tell you what I used to think it meant.

When I heard the word “vulnerable” in the past as a First Responder, I thought of it in the context of a vulnerable population that was susceptible to addiction, psychological injury, and disease. I considered it a weakness or the need for protection, indicating the loss of hope, love, joy, and disconnection.

Over the last eight years of my career, I have realized that vulnerability is not what I initially thought it was. My perception of this word changed significantly after the first BC Firefighter Resiliency Program we held in February 2017. This program, done in partnership with Dr. Shields and Dr. Kuhl from Blueprint, was established following the tragic loss of two firefighters to suicide in 2016. This loss deeply impacted our First Responder community and was the catalyst for a call to action in our First Responder world.

After conducting our Resiliency Program with over 40 groups of firefighters from across BC and Canada, we have gained a new perspective on vulnerability. We now see it not as a weakness but as a source of courage, strength, and healing. The program provides a safe space for sharing stories without fear of judgment, allowing first responders to be seen and heard by their peers. This experience is both humbling and transformative and helps to reduce the shame and stigma that has held so many back from reaching out for help.

Brené Brown has taught me that “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity”. Her understanding of the healing power of vulnerability transformed my perspective. She believes that “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage, and it sure does take a whole lot of courage to be vulnerable.”

What I have observed when we share our stories of emotional pain, trauma, grief, and loss is that we inspire and provide permission to others to share and be vulnerable. When we show empathy, curiosity, and compassion to those around us who are suffering, we create authentic connections. We have found that from that empathy, we have discovered the antidote to shame.

Reflecting on my early years in the Fire Service, I realized that I was unprepared for the emotional toll and trauma I would face. I was 19 when I began as a paid-on-call firefighter and later became a career firefighter in 1997. I was unprepared for the things I would witness. We received no training, awareness, or education on how to handle the emotional toll or how to take care of ourselves and regulate our nervous system after a traumatic incident. However, positive changes are underway in the fire service, with initiatives like the BC Firefighter Occupational Awareness Training. With the launch of this video series in April of 2023 and the start of year two on June 1st of 2024, we now have almost 10,000 BC firefighters enrolled in the course, including career fighters, investigators and dispatchers, volunteers, paid-on-call, and BC Wildfire firefighters.

Matt Johnston from First Responder Health, who created the video series that features Dr. Duncan Shields, is revolutionizing mental health education for our firefighter community. The series consists of short, easily digestible videos that can be distributed gradually throughout the year. This delivery method will help reinforce the lessons learned and ensure that mental health training is integrated into our monthly routines rather than being treated as a one-time requirement every few years. This innovative approach to training will help reduce barriers to seeking help, normalize people’s experiences, and establish a consistent message and common language for all BC firefighters!

On a more personal note, I want to share my experience from May 14th, 2019; when I decided to take a knee and go through the resiliency program, we created for BC firefighters. I had come to a point in my life where I needed to unpack over 27 years in the Fire Service. This included all of the traumatic calls I had attended over my career, life before the fire service and also dealing with a current mental health and life crisis that was making my emotional backpack too heavy to carry. I did not expect this to be a life-changing experience over the next 3-½ days and some of the hardest work I have ever done.

The courage, strength, and vulnerability of the participants were inspiring. Through writing, group work, and personal reflection, we formed a strong bond and supported each other through the difficult process. The program helped me confront and process the pain I had been carrying, allowing me to understand and accept myself on a deeper level. I felt extreme pride, as this is something that we created together,

Built for us by us!

We must continue to change the narrative and create safe spaces that are free of judgment. We need to allow ourselves to cry, grieve, and take a moment for ourselves. I now believe that the word “vulnerability” is a symbol of hope and courage. It is the antidote to the stigma and shame that often prevent people from seeking help. We must continue cultivating and promoting a community of love, support, and compassion. Only then can we bring about positive change in the Fire Service.

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