Home / Top Story / PTSD concerns arise after firefighters refuse to clean up traumatic scene

PTSD concerns arise after firefighters refuse to clean up traumatic scene




a car driving on a highway: In this file photo taken on November 5, 2012, there was a fatal 4-vehicle crash on Highway 400. PTSD concerns for first responders took centre stage in early May 2019 after another traumatic scene played out on Highway 400.


© Paul Novosad
In this file photo taken on November 5, 2012, there was a fatal 4-vehicle crash on Highway 400. PTSD concerns for first responders took centre stage in early May 2019 after another traumatic scene played out on Highway 400.

WARNING: story contains descriptions of self-harm which may disturb some readers. If you need help, you can call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566. The service is toll free from anywhere in Canada, operates in French and English, 24/7.

How far should taxpayer-funded first-responder organizations such as police, fire services and paramedics go when it comes to trying to protect staff from witnessing trauma?

With post-traumatic stress disorder rocking many departments and depleting them of staff on long-term leave, there are opposing views about what efforts those in charge should take to shield employees from bloody or gruesome scenes that might affect them down the road.

The subject took centre stage in early May after a 52-year-old woman jumped to her death from a bridge over Hwy. 400 in Vaughan.

On the road below, drivers were stuck after the highway’s southbound lanes were closed completely for just under three hours.

Northbound traffic was severely affected, and even after the road reopened, chaos continued for several hours.

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.

Const. Andy Pattenden said the highway was closed an extra hour because of the denial of service. It left police scrambling to find a solution. Eventually, Miller Paving was called in at 5:29 p.m. to carry out the cleanup.

Also watch: Highway 400 shuts down after a vehicle tire hurls off one car and hits another (Provided by Global News)

When the highway reopened at 5:41.p.m., an hour’s worth of bottled-up traffic, amounting to thousands upon thousands of commuters, slowly got moving again.

Pattenden said he was advised that Vaughan Fire — which had been at the scene and provided CPR following the initial incident but had since left — wouldn’t return to avoid exposing its firefighters to the traumatic scene.

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.”

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Rizzi said the service was denied because it would not have been “appropriate” to wash down the roadway into a ditch.

“This was a tragic loss of life; it was not appropriate to hose down the roadway into a storm system or onto the side of the roadway,” she wrote in an email.

“(Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service) leadership recommended that the safest and most appropriate way to clean this fatality scene was to retain a professional remediation company,” she wrote. “Every situation is unique, and we determine operational response based on safety of our citizens and emergency workers, property and the environment.”

The Ontario coroner attended the scene.

Rizzi said it wasn’t an easy decision to make, knowing that hiring a remediation firm would result in the highway being closed for a longer period.

She added that she determined “operational responses” were in full compliance with the Environmental Protection Act and the Ontario Water Resources Act.

Regardless, the decision has brought up the issue of PTSD and first-responders.

Although municipalities, including Vaughan, refuse to divulge how many firefighters are off on long-term disability, PTSD is taken into consideration when making decisions about deploying firefighters.

A source said of the 300 odd firefighters in Vaughan, more than 10 are on leave.

While some say denying service is an outrage, others say it’s the natural progression in an industry rife with mental health issues.

A 33-year veteran firefighter in York Region, who reached the rank of captain, said he’s never heard of a fire department refusing washdowns, especially in circumstances where motorists are trapped on a highway.

“I have been to accidents where I had to pick up someone’s arm,” said the man, who requested anonymity due to concerns he may face retribution for speaking out.

“I would tell my guys, suck it up, I know it’s ugly, but that’s what we’re paid to do. You can’t expect a third party to come in and do it. The only time I’d entertain a third party is hazardous materials, because we’re not very well trained for that.”

Despite his feelings, he admitted he’s “old school” in his thinking and conceded how “sensitive” the issue of PTSD has become today.

“PTSD has become really prevalent in the last few years,” he added. “My only problem is we get paid good money and we all knew what it was before we got into (firefighting). Now people are saying after the fact that, ‘Oh, now I’m not OK with it.’ There aren’t fires like there used to be, so we have to play a big role to justify what they get paid and all that equipment.”

He said, at the end of the day, he feels for the Miller Paving employees who had to do the cleanup.

“They’re not trained emergency responders, they are truck drivers,” he said. “I can’t image what they were saying about the firefighters.”

Miller Paving, which did not reply to multiple requests for comment, completed the washdown as part of its $16-million, six-year contract in Toronto and York with the Ministry of Transportation.

Psychotherapist Joddie Walker, who works with a number of York Region first responders, said it’s important to understand what PTSD is and how it develops.

She said human beings use the part of their brain called the amygdala — the fright, flight or freeze centre — when they sense a threat to their well-being.

For example, if a firefighter is trapped in a burning building, everything about that situation — the smell, sight and taste — can trap itself in the amygdala, she said.

If not properly processed, the trauma can be triggered at a later date, possibly by completely innocuous events, causing anxiety and adrenalin — as if the person is in danger but without the actual danger.

Otherwise, it can be caused by cumulative exposure, meaning consistently witnessing death and injury can be absorbed and comes back to haunt the person.

“I always compare it to parking spots. No one knows how many parking spots they have in their brain, and some of those spots can be taken up by childhood trauma,” said Walker, who works at The Trauma Centre in Sharon.

“Some people wonder why they are being hit with this now, well, all the parking spots are filled up.”

She said if a firefighter failed to save the woman’s life on Hwy. 400, left then returned, it could trigger tremendous sorrow or guilt, for example.

“In treatment they can feel the emotions, process the events and understand their reactions,” she said.

Walker said if the decision about the Hwy. 400 incident was made to protect firefighters’ mental health, she applauds it.

“The old culture is ‘suck it up buttercup and go grab a beer after work,’ ” she said, explaining she believes it’s up to management to put in policies that promote resilience and to tell firefighters it’s OK to seek treatment.

Mark Train, executive vice-president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, said he’s in favour of a departmental, regional or provincial policy to protect workers and to ensure everyone knows the expectations of all parties.

“Any time a crew has been involved in attempting to save someone’s life, or a highly charged event like that, the exposure a crew has witnessed should end there, so they are not responsible for cleaning up the scene,” he said, explaining that to avoid trauma crews shouldn’t be re-exposed to scenes.

“A policy would look at things like that.”

Jeremy Grimaldi is a crime and justice reporter for YorkRegion.com and its sister papers. Reach him via email: jgrimaldi@yrmg.com



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