Fire fighters Shawn Hall, Patrick Schiefele, Scott Kratzmann and Andy Michaluk take a socially-distanced break at the Campbell River fire hall. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror

Fire fighters Shawn Hall, Patrick Schiefele, Scott Kratzmann and Andy Michaluk take a socially-distanced break at the Campbell River fire hall. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror

COPING WITH COVID: Staffing issues, long hours and limited mental health supports put strain on emergency workers

SPECIAL REPORT PT. 3: Firefighters and paramedics finding novel ways to deal with COVID-19 stress

Third in a series

One of the things Campbell River firefighters miss the most about 2019 is interacting with the community.

Almost everything about this year – from the shut down of everything but essential services in March to having to wear extra protective equipment on calls – has put up barriers between firefighters and the public they serve.

“We’re out dealing with the public and dealing with people face-to-face quite often, and the increase in PPE that we have to now carry and wear is quite cumbersome and it slows us down,” said firefighter Scott Kratzmann. “ There’s so much that we have to get on now. We have to have a respirator, face shield, a gown, gloves and we understand and support the need for it, but it has certainly just added a layer of stuff… If you’re trying to talk through that respirator, your voice is muffled and they’re not listening their best anyways because they’re super scared, so it just adds another layer to our struggle to communicate.”

For paramedics, that extra layer of protection makes their job even harder than usual. Paramedics are facing what has been called a triple threat, with the COVID-19 pandemic, an ongoing opioid crisis in B.C. and chronic staffing issues in the province that are forcing them to work shifts that are over 14 hours a day.

“It’s tiring, it’s just exhausting mentally, physically and all sorts of avenues,” said Amanda Zahara, a community paramedic based in Campbell River. “Staffing issues are a huge thing for us now. It takes way more time on calls because we’re having to put on our PPE gear, we’re having to manage patients differently, our cleanup is tenfold and everything’s taking time on calls, which is also taking resources out of the community when we don’t have all of our cars staffed as well. That makes it difficult as well. A lot of times our cars aren’t fully staffed, especially in rural communities.”

In rural communities, many paramedics are only part-time staff. That means that 75 per cent of the province does not have full-time ambulance service available to them. Paramedics have stressful jobs and often take time for stress leave, which puts further strain on the system.

“Our shifts are 12 hours, and if that gets extended then it’s extended. It’s on a call-basis. You’re doing maybe 14 hours, then you have to go home, clean up, have a shower, eat and then go to it again the next morning,” Zahara said. “We don’t have a lot of downtime to regroup.”

During the time they do have, emergency workers are finding new ways to deal with the stress of working in the front lines during a pandemic. Emergency workers are more than just coworkers to each other. They have to have one another’s back in some of the most dangerous situations imaginable. They have to deal with high levels of stress that most people only see once or twice in their lifetime, and they have to deal with the regular stresses of life just like everyone else. Usually, they are able to get together after the shift to decompress, but have had to find new ways of ensuring their mental health is as strong as it needs to be to continue doing what they do.

“One thing I have noticed is that some of the things that we do on a personal basis to keep our mental health strong is we congregate off-shift. We get together, we work out, we go for mountain bike rides, we fish, we do all these things that we do to help stay strong and mentally healthy, but now we can’t do that. I can’t call a couple of my buddies and say ‘let’s go for a mountain bike ride,’ because the health officers say we can’t do that,” Kratzmann said. “We have to just diversify how we’re dealing with it and adapt like everyone else. The whole world is dealing with it, it’s a whole new normal and we’re just adapting to it.”

“I think everybody’s trying to find their own thing that works for them, like for example exercise and just getting outside. Trying to be more present with family and trying to make the best of it, that kind of stuff,” Zahara added. “Even just colleagues talking to each other and knowing that we’re all in this together and we’re not singled out. We work with the fire department, with the police and we are all doing this together.”

While going out on calls is a big part of what emergency services workers do, they also serve a valuable role in doing community outreach work. This is everything from doing commercial fire inspections to welcoming in families who just want to show their kids what a fire engine looks like up close.

“The fire hall should be a place for people to feel free to stop in, ask any questions or have the kids check out the truck. That’s one of the cool parts of the job,” Kratzmann said. “We [would] have tours coming around the fire hall with kindergarten or playschool kids and interacting with them is a ton of fun. Every year we put the grade 3 classes through a fire safety program in our safety house. That’s been shut down, so we’ve missed an entire year of public education, public safety, we haven’t had any tours of the hall, haven’t done any fire inspections in any buildings because we can’t be out in the public and people don’t want us in their workplace, which is totally understandable.”

That being said, Zahara explained that the community’s support during this tough time has made a world of difference for the people out there facing the pandemic head on.

“There’s been a lot of positives with the community supporting us. They’re offering gift cards, coffees and just little things like that, or when people stand outside and cheer for us. There’s just little things and big things happening that help every body,” Zahara said.

“It’s nice to see that, it kind of gives us a little boost and reminds us that we can do this. We’re going to get through this as a community, and we can do this,” she added.

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A fire crew heads out on a call to provide support for BC Ambulance. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror.

A fire crew heads out on a call to provide support for BC Ambulance. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror.

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