The Importance of Mental Health Literacy in Firefighting


The Fire service prides itself on its ingrained knowledge around many different aspects of the job. And, while there are certainly some coveted “specialist” roles, firefighters are required to be knowledgeable about a vast array of things. Consider a structure fire – a carpenter’s knowledge of building construction is invaluable, as well as the scientific knowledge of flow paths.  It’s crucial to be able to understand a concept and know how to navigate around it safely. It makes the difference when successfully and competently completing an efficient task.When I was completing a HAZMAT awareness course, we had a tech level instructor who would give us a little extra during our trainings which was a welcomed, interesting change. Here was a question he posed, “You are responding to a multi-vehicle MVC on the 401. You’re informed that a transport carrying an unknown liquid is on its side with a potential leak, placard reading 2789. What is it and how do you respond?” As an eager student, I was already rifling through the CANUTEC handbook to find the relevant knowledge. It turned out to be Acetic Acid. Scary stuff. So, I continued with naming all the relevant PPE required and potential procedures. This was – I thought, a successful answer to the question. But, here was where my awareness ended and I needed some more “literacy” in understanding chemicals. In case you were like me, here is what acetic acid is: vinegar. That’s right, our instructor continued, while large quantities could be dangerous and bad if you are swimming in it – a spill of this stuff would more likely require french fries than an A suit.

I was floored. But, that’s what being a good firefighter is all about isn’t it? The difference between being “aware” and being “literate” in what we are doing. “Awareness” is knowing rudimentary knowledge about something – like roughly knowing the difference between an A –frame or a Balloon frame. Literacy comes with understanding the real differences and understanding how an attack on such structures will change.

I always remember that interaction as one that solidified my desire to be a tech level in Hazmat. I ultimately didn’t get there. But, even knowing that some of my team were trained to that level eliminated my anxiety when we were responding to something coming down the artery of Ontario. And with the understanding that while certain things have scary names – many of them can be managed easily and safely. Being aware only maintained my anxiety by giving me just enough information to understand that I had zero idea what I was dealing with – so, I do what everyone else does:

Stand up wind, and call CANUTEC.

This brings me to the whole point in this story – we have begun to be satisfied with an awareness level of mental health when it comes to our firefighters. This is the most basic and rudimentary understanding – or, in other words – the bread and water treatment. Awareness is good, but what is it that we are aware of exactly?

That mental health is scary and bad and it is all PTSD.

This statement has led some to shy away from support, others to leave their career, and still others to stay hidden. As well as the inverse, it has led many to reach out to folks like me to identify that they do have PTSD and need treatment. PTSD treatment can be more costly in effort, time, and patience than other issues. And yet, a mental health literate firefighter could identify that the symptoms that they are experiencing would not meet the criteria for PTSD.

Just like we have different levels of training and skill sets for every other aspect of firefighting, I believe that there is a good case to be made for similar levels identifying mental health literacy. This provides a feasible arena for firefighting to more seriously approach an illness that takes so many members off the job unwillingly. Having a deeper level of understanding could also reduce feelings of anxiety. Similar to how I will never know acetic acid as anything other than vinegar, firefighters could now understand symptoms as signs or flags that something is up.

What’s more, with this knowledge they can take some treatment into their own hands. By addressing head on the symptoms they are experiencing using gold standard and teachable strategies (such as those in CBT or CPT), many people can find relief and benefit from mental health issues on their own. And, it would also allow for people to understand when they are at something that requires more support than what they can give themselves. Leading them to reach out to experts to help them navigate those pieces.

We were all “aware” of how much we didn’t know when we started in this field. I, as we all did, needed to learn much more than my 18-year-old brain had witnessed or experienced. To some extent, experiential learning is knowledge. But, it is knowledge that, if we are strictly talking mental health, sometimes comes at a great cost. Like dunking our heads into a vat of acetic acid unwillingly, thinking it was water. No awareness. But, we can make changes to this approach. We can stop providing bread and water resources and knowledge to front line firefighters. And, for fire chiefs, we can establish a bona fide system of knowledge. Lastly, for those who may not be interested, provide them with basic but “literate” training allowing them to understand the “when, who, where” of mental health to reach out for support.

What do I mean here? Well as any firefighter or fire official who has undergone the certification process, we understand that we are tested on fundamental understandings. For instance when I was a fire instructor, the topic “Ladders” had 21 sign offs. 21 required competencies to be demonstrated in front of a proctor who would then sign off that the process was completed. This supports and establishes ladders as a serious tool and component to the firefighting service.

To my understanding to date – there is not a single sign off required for mental health understanding. This establishes the topic as an unimportant, insignificant component to the firefighter’s wellbeing and career success. Instead, it might be beneficial to establish some recognized approach that allows all firefighters to undergo a certain level of understanding as a precursor to hiring.

Most importantly it establishes a baseline that mental health is, at least, as important as ladders.

Taking mental health seriously means approaching it seriously. And building in a system where interested firefighters can hone that skill set is a way that the fire service can address a major potential danger to the job. If having a hazmat tech on crew alleviates anxiety, I can only imagine how having a mental health literate colleague would lower anxiety for those who may be struggling. This allows for much more firefighters to become involved and passionate in the mental health care of themselves and their crews. This helps ease stigma about these issues and removes the “responsibility” of that on those who have struggled or are struggling to seek support and help.

About the Author 

Nick Halmasy

Registered Psychotherapist and Previously Served as a Firefighter/ Fire Instructor

Nick is a registered psychotherapist, author and research collaborator with FireWell out of McMaster University. Nick served as firefighter/fire instructor for 10 years in the volunteer sector prior to moving into clinical work. Nick writes, speaks, and presents on various topics of mental health and is a critic and contrarian to current approaches in firefighter mental health. He’s also the founder of which is dedicated to offering free mental health resources for first responders and their families.

Nick Halmasy

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