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Dalhousie researcher examines trauma experienced by volunteer firefighters

Across Canada, 83 per cent of firefighters are volunteers. The number is even higher in Nova Scotia
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Robin Campbell spent 10 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Wolfville Fire Department.

Now, she's taken a different route, and is earning her PhD at Dalhousie University through the School of Occupational Therapy.

But her previous life as a firefighter has led Campbell to a little-studied topic -- the impact of stress and trauma on volunteer firefighters.

"My time as a volunteer firefighter made me realize that more research is needed and we need to start exploring this," she tells NEWS 95.7's The Todd Veinotte Show.

Across Canada, 83 per cent of firefighters are volunteers. The rate is as high as 90 per cent in Nova Scotia.

"A lot of people don't realize that," Campbell explains. "This isn't their every day job, they're doing this as part of their spare time to give back to their community."

The PhD student says there are a number of reasons people become volunteer firefighters, from wanting to help their neighbours to following in their family's footsteps.

"It's exciting to be part of something where you get to help people in such a way that you normally wouldn't get to do in an every day job," she says. "It's also really rewarding volunteer experience."

But as many people learn, it's not all fire poles and big red trucks.

"Just seeing all the different experiences firefighters are having, and realizing that people don't really know what is going on for volunteer firefighters," Campbell says.

When Campbell she joined in 2006, there weren't many firefighters speaking out about the stress of the job.

"When I joined that was really not talked about. Maybe in the last year or two it's starting to be talked about more, but it's certainly still not explored enough in that understanding," she says.

As a researcher and a member of the Critical Incident Stress Management Team, Campbell wants to teach more people about mental health literacy.

"I think that's where that piece is really missing," she says. "Starting to educate more around what are some things you're going to experience? What are the symptoms? How do you cope with these things in a healthy way?"

Campbell also says there aren't as many resources for volunteers as there are for full-time firefighters.

"It's definitely more challenging," she explains. "When people are coming in once a week or on call, the pager goes off and that's when they show up to the fire hall, it's really hard to try to coordinate different opportunities and resources for volunteers."

Additionally, many programs and benefits that make the job less stressful aren't available to volunteers.

"A lot of the programs, worker's compensation or insurances, those are built for employed people, not necessarily the volunteer world," adds Campbell.

But she says that education is the first step in making sure no one gets left behind.

"Education for our firefighters who are struggling, or might be struggling in the future. To understand what that looks like," Campbell explains.

Although Campbell doesn't have all the answers at this stage, she hopes her research helps to find a solution.

"What happens with our firefighters who are struggling? How do we reach them? How do we do that in a timely fashion?" are just some of the questions Campbell wants to answer.

Starting in January 2020, Campbell will work with a handful volunteer firefighters from three rural fire departments in Nova Scotia.

She says it's the least she can do for the volunteers who are doing so much.

"We have these people volunteering to risk their lives for us. We can do something in return."

For more information, visit Campbell's website, soundthesiren.ca.


Victoria  Walton

About the Author: Victoria Walton

Victoria is HalifaxToday.ca's weekend editor and a Halifax-based freelancer. She is originally from Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.
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