WATCH: Don Bardonnex was once told to “suck it up” as a young firefighter, but now the Courtenay fire chief leads by example in showing it’s OK to ask for help.
It’s said that first responders are the first to the scene and the last ones to forget.
“We are going to have those calls. We are going to see those things that are going to stay with us and what’s important to understand is you’re never going to unsee or forget the experience but we need to be able to have the tools to control the emotions and the feelings we get when we think about them,” explained Deputy Fire Chief Kurt MacDonald of the Courtenay Fire Department.
Twenty per cent of all first responders suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and if left undiagnosed, can lead to depression, isolation and suicide.
It can also sneak up on people like it did to Courtenay Fire Chief Don Bardonnex.
“It was a normal call and I broke down at two o’clock in the morning on the way home from that call.” Courtenay Fire Chief Don Bardonnex told CHEK News. “During treatment, I realized that I’d actually been breaking down for the last ten years.”
He’s always looked after his firefighters but remembers a different time early in his 42-year career.
“When I first started and I had issues and brought it up it was ‘suck it up buttercup’ or another famous line that was said to me was ‘if you can’t stand the heat maybe you should be working in another kitchen,'” said Bardonnex.
Bardonnex took most of 2017 off for treatment but still deals with the effects of PTSD.
When he attended a recent fatal motorcycle crash on Ryan Road in Courtenay, not far from where a teenager died in another car crash in 2008, he said he had flashbacks at the scene for the first time in his career.
“The things people see, the things people have to do, it gets to them and you have to be able to share that and quite honestly you have to be in an environment that’s allowing you to share,it.” said Bardonnex.
And that’s what he’s done at the Courtenay fire hall, fostering an atmosphere where it’s OK to ask for help.
“I mean if the guys below him need help, he can recognize that because he recognized he needed help himself that time,” said Courtenay firefighter Ken Hryko.
“It just shows great leadership,” added Courtenay Fire Captain Matt Foster. “It means that everyone that’s underneath and coming up behind the chief is able to be more comfortable with how they’re feeling.”