By: Bob Rich, Chief Constable APD (Ret’d), O.O.M., LL.B.
In our communities, there are certain people who are always willing to give more than they take. These givers are always finding ways to help their communities. Amongst these people are our first responders; members of the police, fire and ambulance services. These are the trained professionals who come when we call 911 for help.
Unfortunately, because these people frequently have to respond to stressful and traumatic events, many first responders find they have been seriously injured during the course of the career. I don’t mean physically injured, although that can sure be a risk. Rather they find they have operational stress injuries caused by what they have seen and done. They are having to deal with PTSD, depression, anxiety or burnout. The cumulative effect of attending these difficult calls over the years has had its toll on them, and the impact on their lives is often devastating.
On February 9th, at the First Responder’s Gala, put on by the Dwivedi Foundation to thank and support first responders, I had the chance to speak about my “top ten” ways for First Responders to build their resilience so they can retire healthy. Here is what I had to say:
- You are in a marathon, not a sprint – Think long-term
As a first responder, you are often so involved in what is going on at work, you fail to take the long view. If you sprain your ankle, you, “just want to get back to work”. I know as a first responder you just want to tighten the laces of your boot and limp through the next shift. Please learn that it is far better to take the time to treat your ankle (or whatever is hurt) and ensure it is healed and strong. Think, what will keep you healthy in the long-term, because you are in a job where you need to stay fit and well for 30 years.
- Know yourself – Become self-aware
To stay well, you must become self-aware. What is going on with me? What are my honest emotions? Am I coping? How am I treating my co-workers, my family? Someone who is not aware of themselves won’t know how to take the right next step if they get injured by a difficult event. Learn to reflect on how you are doing. Learn to ask your co-workers for feedback.
- Educate yourself
We all talk about PTSD, but how many people know what it really is? What are the symptoms? How is it treated? When you are troubled by an event (which is just normal by the way), at what point should you realize that you are unable to process what happened and will need some help?
- Learn resilience skills
There are things you can do to become emotionally and mentally stronger. What works for you might not work for me, so you have to figure out your own formula. Exercise, regular visits to a counsellor, mindfulness training, healthy world view, key relationships and social groups away from work are all part of building your own resilience.
- Learn what keeps you healthy
Staying physically fit is so important. Our mind and body are not separate. Eating well, having good sleep habits, exercise, and ensuring you have mental breaks from work. Whether it is a walk around the block, or skydiving, figure out what works for you.
- Develop your own support network – friends and family
The lone wolf approach does not work. We need people to be there for us, and us for them. Make sure you invest in the people around you and have people who will be there for you on a dark day when you need support. Always be investing in your family.
- Draw on your grit and courage
First responders are known for their grit, that quality of refusing to stay down when you get knocked down. Use that quality to fight for your health. Face into your injury, don’t hide it or cover it over. Use your courage and determination to find a way back to being strong.
- Know when to get professional help
As you build your skills, you will be able work out many issues on your own, but know when you are past that and need someone to professionally help you. You know how to put a bandage on your cut, but you also know you can’t take out your own appendix. When the injury is serious, be wise enough to get help.
- Know when to take a knee
For years, the culture for first responders has been, “suck it up”. Just put on your game face and be strong. This approach will lead to a serious breakdown when it all gets too much and the cumulative affect finally overwhelms you. Instead, get that when you are injured, you go down on one knee and stop and figure out how to recover, do what it takes to get better and come back strong. If you go to a horrible call and it knocks you down, face into the injury and deal with it then. If it means some time away from work, so be it. Remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint. We need you to be well for a long time and we want you to retire healthy after all you have done for the community!
- Remember, HOW MUCH YOU MATTER!
You are the person who has dedicated your career to helping others in difficult times. Often the call you go to is the worst day of someone’s life and you are there for them. Since you matter, then you are worth the investment to stay well. We want you do look after yourself. We need you to stay well, so you can be there on the day we need you!
I can’t guarantee the outcome of following my top ten list. I spent 38 years as a police officer and I know there has been a price. But, when I add it all up, I find I am retiring healthy and I want the same for you. I truly believe if you invest in yourself, you can stay well. You are worth it!
Bob Rich was the Chief of the Abbotsford Police Department for 10 years, retiring in October of 2018. Prior to that, he spent 28 years as a member of the Vancouver Police Department, where his last position was the Deputy Chief of Operations. Chief Rich had focused on the primary mission for police of making the community safe, but when he realized the impact the work was having on his member’s health, he added the goal of keeping his members safe as well. He now talks about the “Two M’s; the Mission and the Members” as the essential priorities for a police leader.