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Do not use the term 'hero'

Firefighters Scott Hemstad and Gord Ditchburn prefer people wouldn't use the word "hero." 

Hemstad is deputy chief of Vernon Fire Rescue, and Ditchburn is president of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association. 

Both men are passionate about their work and speak candidly about the mental health struggles of firefighters. 

But that is where their similarities diverge. No two firefighters are alike.

"I don't like being considered a hero. I'll be honest, I get embarrassed."

Whether it's because of Hollywood or 9/11, firefighters tend to be revered by the public. 

And they're often asked: what's the worst thing they've seen. 

"When I first joined the ranks, it was a rite of passage to see the dead body," said Ditchburn. "It was a rite of passage to see somebody who had jumped from a bridge. Now, I'm not going to send the most junior member of my crew to see that dead body. I've seen too many as it is now. I don't want them to see any more than they absolutely have to."

Ditchburn works in Vancouver. Twenty years of being exposed to horrific incidents have taught him how to compartmentalize the events. 

"The most traumatic experiences for firefighters and first responders are when the call resembles something that's close to home. So you go to a call with a child. You go to a call with aging parents ... those tend to hit home the hardest because you put yourself in their place."

Triggers like smells, sights or sounds can force memories to the surface.  

"I can visualize certain calls that I've been on; as clear as they were 20 years ago, they are that clear today," he said. "You carry that with you an entire lifetime.

"That's what people don't understand when you ask a firefighter to tell a story."

Ditchburn lost a daughter in a motor vehicle incident 14 years ago. She was hit while walking in a crosswalk.

Ditchburn was on duty that day, but was on his way home when the call came in. 

He was off work for five months, and one of the first calls after his return was a child death.

"That's the hard part that this 'hero' has to struggle with." 

"I really, really don't like when people use the H-word or provide me with praise."

Hemstad's first day as a professional firefighter was Sept. 10, 2001. The next day, 343 firefighters died when the Twin Towers in New York City collapsed.

"I reacted a lot like I think most people did in society – it was shock and awe and horror," he says.

He chooses not to discuss traumatic events in his own career. 

"Because that's my way of dealing with my stress, is not talking about it."

He learned early on to develop his own coping mechanisms.

"I learned not to celebrate when things go well ... I'd have this euphoria when we saved this person ... go to the next call, things don't go well, and somebody dies."

He would worry about what was done wrong or what wasn't done right. That burden was too much for him to handle. 

Hemstad says he doesn't want credit because he doesn't want to blame himself when things go bad.

Most of the time, people's fate is decided before emergency responders arrive on scene, he adds. 

"The car accidents happen before we get there. We know our job isn't to stop them, it is to try and help people after they've been in an accident ... so if I'm going to pat myself on the back when it goes well, that means I've got to blame myself when things go badly. And that's just way too much stress."

Two sides of the same coin

Ditchburn describes a career in emergency services like this:

"Every step you take, somebody is putting a rock in a backpack, and at some point, you break from the weight of that backpack or the backpack breaks. But at some point, you're going to take a knee and say I need to take a break here."

Both men want to leave the profession in better shape than when they entered it.

"The retired firefighters who suffered in their own way during careers, who didn't want to show a weakness of any kind, now come back and say they wish that they were able to talk about it 30 years ago," says Ditchburn.
 
Firefighters continue to push for presumptive legislation that would recognize first responders may develop mental health issues or PTSD due to traumatic events throughout a career. 

"Every day we are getting better and better at removing the stigma. You can put your hand up and ask for help. We view it as a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness."

Last spring, B.C. amended the Firefighters Occupational Disease Regulation under the Workers Compensation Act to include a range of cancers presumed to be caused by their occupation.

There's one more thing Hemstad and Ditchurn have in common – something they share with all first responders.

They both say they've been to too many memorial services for fallen first responders.

"I have lost track of how many individual funeral services I've attended over the years for police, fire and ambulance paramedics, people who put themselves in harm's way," said Ditchburn.

"It's tough for the regular public to appreciate the bonds or appreciate the stresses that emergency responders go through," said Hemstad. "Usually, for the people, we deal with, it's one of the worst days of their life."

In part five of Front-line Frequencies, we speak with Sgt. Judy Bird of the Abbotsford Police Department in "A crack in the armour."



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