Jan. 27 was the 27th anniversary of the murder of Tema Conter. Brutally killed in her Toronto apartment in 1988 by an escaped sex offender, the first responders on that day still grapple with what they saw.
Vince Savoia was one of the paramedics who attended to Conter at the scene. The events of that day, which he can still recall vividly, caused him to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and ultimately cost him his career. Soon after his diagnosis, Savoia started the Tema Conter Memorial Trust Fund, an organization dedicated to reaching out and spreading awareness about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in first responders.
More than 50 first responders across Canada – police officers, firefighters, paramedics, soldiers and corrections officers – have committed suicide because of mental health problems in the past 15 months, according to Savoia’s foundation.
And while Ontario has recently pledged to do more to support traumatized first responders, that’s not enough, according to Savoia.
“More needs to be done to fight the stigma associated with PTSD, including providing better treatment options for those in distress,” Savoia said.
Savoia’s foundation launched a tour last year across Canada, headed by the powerful slogan “Heroes are Human.” The tour’s goal was to reach communities large and small to raise awareness for mental health. This month’s fundraising dinner caps a week of conferences, and educational seminars for first responders, and experts in the field of counselling.
An estimated 87 per cent of first responders have admitted to experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from their jobs.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, PTSD is “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”
Savoia’s problems dated from July 1988, when he was at Tema Conter’s apartment. The image of Conter has stayed with Savoia ever since. Making a personal link to the victim is what Savoia believes pushed him off the deep end.
What threw me over the edge was I looked at Tema and saw she reminded me of my fiancée.
“Everyone has their own triggers, everyone has their own life outside the job,” Savoia said, “It’s when the two worlds connect that you’re going to have a problem. And in one split-second, you just make that connection.”
It would take firefighter Bob Landry much longer to experience his own trigger. In the early 1980s, Landry had been a firefighter for just two months in Vaughan, Ontario and the 9-1-1 calls had been few and far between. This one night, the bell pulled Landry and his platoon out of bed, down the pole and onto the back of the truck. It was a car roll over. Landry, then 21, remembers being excited, because it was his first motor vehicle accident.
“I thought it would be cool,” said Landry, 56, in telephone interview. He’s been retired for four years.
The accident was on a back road, and there were no street lights; the only source of light was from the truck. Landry and his platoon squinted into the semi-darkness. A car was rolled over, and a pair of white Adidas shoes was poking out from under it.
“It was gruesome. I just wanted to leave,” Landry said, describing the flashlight beams darting across the scene like strobe lights, seeing the blood and the crunched metal.
His captain led them over to the car. The kid with the white Adidas had been ejected from the vehicle, then the car rolled on top of him.
“That was my first real wakeup call. [I thought] We’re not fucking around here.”
That was my first real wakeup call. [I thought] We’re not fucking around here.
After a few hours on the scene, with the firefighters helping police and paramedics to remove people from the area and transport some to the hospital, Landry went back to the fire hall with his platoon to do maintenance on the truck and make sure his gear was in working condition before he went home. At home, his mother cleaned the blood off his uniform gloves. He was back at work the next night.
Then, about a decade into Landry’s career, his platoon responded to a call for a choking. When they arrived, paramedics were already loading the child, who had been without vital signs for many minutes, into the ambulance. A firefighter or police officer sometimes accompanies the paramedics to the hospital, and since Landry knew more first aid than the police, he went. They attended to the child all the way to the hospital.
“I could hear sirens around the vehicle, all this shit going on outside the vehicle.” recalls Landry. Landry and the paramedic waited outside the emergency room on arrival, and about 15 minutes later heard the blood curdling scream of the mother. Landry’s own child was the same age as the victim, who had choked on a candy.
“I’ve got to phone my wife,” Landry recalls thinking in a panic. “There’s a bowl of baby carrots in the fridge, and…”
Landry takes a moment to collect himself, all these years later.
“I don’t want my kid to choke on the carrots. I couldn’t get it out, couldn’t spit it out, could barely get three words out — ‘Get the carrots out of the fridge.’”
Though Landry missed the initial debriefing process after this call, he was able to talk to his chief, as well as his wife, about the incident.
“You’d talk to your buddies at the fire hall after calls, not really knowing you guys were really helping each other out.” Landry said. He was never formally diagnosed with PTSD.
In comparison with Landry’s first two years on the job, there have been many changes in procedure and attitude surrounding mental health.
Andrew Vaughan, 25, has been a firefighter at downtown Toronto fire station 314 for two years.
“There is a bit of a stigma for sure, but now people see the need for [support],” Vaughan said, referring to how, after 9/11, it became glaringly clear that there was no way first responders or people in general could be responsible for coping with these circumstances on their own.
“[First responders] see these giant tragedies, they lose a whole bunch of friends and coworkers; you need help. There’s a lot more education about it now,” Vaughan said.
The Tema Conter Memorial Trust offers an extensive range of support measures, including a hotline to call, referral services and peer and family support services. TEMA also offers scholarships for those who want to pursue careers as first responders. Their main message to sufferers of PTSD is to let these people know that they are not alone.
“You can never paint the picture vivid enough for whoever you’re telling to really understand,” Landry said.
“You’ve got to think you’re pretty invincible,” Vaughan laughs, referring to individuals who pursue careers as first responders. They see things that the average person only sees on an HBO show, and might even cause them to cover their eyes. Though firefighters are given many options for support at their stations (including debriefs after particularly traumatic calls, employee assistance program, peer counselling and anonymous hotlines to call) it is not difficult to imagine that they struggle to separate themselves from their work.
Despite the morbid realities of being a first responder, the inspiring and hopeful aspects of the job must not be forgotten. Even well into Landry’s 30 year career, he says when his crew rolled up to a fire, it was still exciting. Sometimes there would be crowds surrounding an incident, everyone would be yelling and the intensity was energizing.
“But that’s for the young kids,” laughs Landry, saying that in an average firefight, when everything goes according to plan, most firefighters are thinking along the lines of: “This is cool, this is fun.”
“I consider myself lucky,” said Landry, somberly. “I survived that, I’m doing well.”
He says that he still has times where sleeping through the night is difficult; though he suggests that some of the blame might be on his 30 years of shift work.
Vaughan, with two years of firefighting under his belt, echoes Landry, acknowledging that when he hears the siren ring, the adrenaline kicks in and people get pumped.
“You want to be the first truck there. It’s a race. You want to man the hose; you want to be the one who puts out the fire.”
On coping with the day-to-day, Vaughan said it helps him to remember his training from Humber College, which firefighters have to keep in mind: that they are there solely to help.
“Bad things are going to happen, and you’re just there to improve the situation; and lots of times you do.