The evolving role of P.E.I. volunteer firefighters

Some P.E.I. fire departments had record years in 2019 — and they're increasingly responding to medical calls in addition to fire calls.

The Borden-Carleton fire department took 105 calls, 71 of which were medical calls. The Summerside fire department had 344 calls, 85 of which were medical. And in Montague, the department responded to 156 calls, 43 of which were medical.

Amanda Brazil is a research scientist with the centre for health and community research at UPEI. Her PhD focused on stressful calls and the effect they have on volunteer firefighters.

She said there are just over 1,000 volunteer firefighters on the Island, and about 80 per cent of the calls they respond to are medical calls.

"Really what you are seeing is a change in the work. It's definitely more personal work … and very different types of work than fighting fires," said Brazil, who is also a retired P.E.I. volunteer firefighter.

In the course of her research, Brazil said, firefighters have told her they are primarily first responders — and anyone looking to join a fire department should know they're going to be dealing with a lot of medical calls.

Pat Martel/CBC

"It's really important that they recognize that most of what they will be doing, particularly in our more rural departments, are medical calls," she said.

Ron Enman, the chief of the Summerside fire department and firefighter for 25 years, said he's seen a big shift over the years.

"I think if you go right across P.E.I., everyone's medical calls are getting higher and higher," Enman said.

Differing rules

Nancy Russell/CBC

Departments across the Island have different rules when it comes to responding to medical calls.

Some departments respond to any call in which an ambulance would respond with lights and sirens — things like cardiac arrest, breathing issues or chest pain — while others only respond if explicitly asked to by Island EMS.

Shawn Jessome, chief of the Borden-Carleton Fire Department, said his department responds because an ambulance can take as long as 20 minutes.

"In other rural departments, it could be 30 minutes or more depending on the busyness of [Island] EMS," Jessome said.

Officials with the Montague Fire Department say firefighters have even responded to calls in the parking lot of Kings County Memorial Hospital when outpatient services were closed.

Tom MacLeod, fire chief at the Montague Fire Department, said they're usually called because of a delayed ambulance response, and his department tries to "stay available as possible" in case they're needed.

In a statement to CBC News, Island EMS said call volumes have increased by 10 per cent year over year on P.E.I., and the same statistic holds true across the country.

"Fire departments play a vital role in supporting emergencies across the province," the statement reads. "When it comes to medical emergencies specifically, individual departments provide support based on the specific response level that the membership has decided upon."

Medical training required

As Island fire departments continue to respond to a growing number of medical calls, Brazil said firefighters need more training.

"More and more departments are adding medical first-responder training in their own training schedule throughout the year, just so people can keep up with the skills that will be required of them," Brazil said.

Since 2013, new firefighters have been required to go through medical first-responder training to obtain Level 1 certification. Prior to that it wasn't mandatory. Firefighters who were with the fire department prior to the rule change don't have to take the course if they don't want to, Brazil said.

I think there is always a nervousness with departments of, you know, how far do we go with this? Are we trained well enough to handle every circumstance?

— Tom MacLeod, Montague fire chief

Another layer of complication, Brazil said, is that the firefighters responding to medical calls are often doing so in the communities they live in.

"Quite often they know the people they are responding to, which can make it even more difficult," she said.

Brazil has been advocating for a provincial resource that can co-ordinate some type of debriefing and mental health education.

"A lot of firefighters don't have that mental health education to recognize when they might be struggling," she said.

Brazil helped bring the Resilient Minds mental health program to the Island, which was created through a partnership between the Canadian Mental Health Association in British Columbia and the Vancouver Fire Department.

John Robertson/CBC

The program aims to educate firefighters about the effects of trauma, how to recognize signs of mental illness and how to access support after critical events.

MacLeod said the Montague fire department has considered whether or not it wants to continue to take medical calls.

"I think there is always a nervousness with departments of, you know, how far do we go with this?" MacLeod said.

 "Are we trained well enough to handle every circumstance? I think our opinion now is it is better for us to go and do what we can than for nobody to do anything."

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