Alberta firefighter recognized as 2021 'Champion of Mental Health'

Gregg Schaalje places himself in the face of danger to protect others as an Alberta firefighter, but his co-workers look up to him for much more than just physical support in the event of an emergency. 

“He is so effective at being there for people and creating an environment where he can be approached and reach out to for help,” said Rocky View County Fire and Rescue Capt. Devin Teal.

“Anytime there's a large event that we're aware of in the surrounding area, he reaches out to those departments and extensive services to help without someone having to ask."

Schaalje, who resides in Okotoks, Alta., is one of three firefighters across Canada to receive the 2021 ‘Champions of Mental Health’ award from the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT).

More than 200 applicants were entered this year and Schaalje was the only firefighter from Alberta to win the honour. 

A lieutenant at Rocky View County Fire Service, Schaalje has been a firefighter for 27 years, but also acts as a peer support member in the Alberta Critical Incident Provincial Network (ACIPN).

 During traumatic events, he helps first responders by providing support and assisting them on their path for recovery.

“It starts with resiliency,” Schaalje said.

“We talk about what we can do to build up our resiliency as first responders and public safety personnel and if we can have their resiliency built up, then when the call actually happens, we have the coping mechanisms that are in place and ready to go."

Schaalje or ‘Skully’ as he’s more commonly known amongst his friends has spent much of his career advocating for mental health.

He pointed back to an incident early in his career as a volunteer firefighter on Vancouver Island when his team responded to a fatal car accident.

As a rookie, Schaalje was tasked with holding the light for attending medics which gave him a clear look at the devastating scene, where passengers were trapped inside of a car that caught fire.

Schaalje’s first fire chief recognized the permanent trauma that could come from a call like that and brought in a psychologist a couple of days later.

“There is no stigma around it, I've known the biggest strongest firefighters out there, I’ve seen them break down and cry with me,” Schaalje said.

“The feeling after me or my team members have sat down with a psychologist and their sheer sense of empathy and understanding for going through the system and understanding is huge.”

Rocky View County Fire Rescue deputy Chief Gary Barnett agrees that communication with first responders following traumatic events needs to continue to be an essential component of the job.

“Our peer support program is all about that, having those tough conversations because it’s OK not to be OK,” he said.

“Going away from work and having something kind of eat away at you is not the way and that’s why we need to talk about it because we’re all human.”

Today, Schaalje continues to advocate for mental health initiatives by directly facilitating peer support services, but also recognizes the need for professionals to step in.

“Without the support of others and the support of not only Rocky View County, but also my family and psychologist, I wouldn’t be where I am today," he said.

“I don’t feel worthy at all of receiving this award, I’m just doing my job.”

CENTRALIZATION OF EMS DISPATCH ADDING STRESS FOR FIRST RESPONDERS

President of the Alberta Firefighters Association Matt Osborne, says first responders have been stretched to the limit with a lack of resources in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a province-wide opioid crisis. 

The centralization of Alberta’s EMS dispatch system most notably has added to the stress of those working on the front lines of an emergency.

It's delayed and it's not as efficient, so us who are on the frontlines treating the patient, that information could be delayed, it can be different, we might sometimes don't get it and then the delays in those resources that have direct impacts on care we provide,” Osborne said.

“As an example, we’re seeing ambulances take upwards of an hour or more to get to Calgary from Canmore. So, you're seeing resources being pulled around because there's not enough so understanding that's a difficult situation. We are working with government, we want to make sure we fix that, but in the meantime, that's stressful.”

According to a recent study from the National Library of Medicine, about 45 per cent of first responders in Canada have symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder.

The survey was conducted with 5,813 first responders across Canada, 28 per cent of which said they had experienced suicidal thoughts in their lifetime. 

The most recent first responder suicide in Alberta involved Warren Hillier, an 11-year military veteran and firefighter with the St. Albert Fire Services.

Sadly, Hillier struggled both mentally and physically and attempted suicide on Nov. 4., before succumbing to his injuries on Nov. 6.

He left behind his eight-year-old son, Hudson and his wife, Michele Mamacos who said her husband of nearly a decade was born to be a helper.

“His purpose in life was to help. He really wanted to make a difference in the world,” Mamacos said.