Kris Redick talking to the documentary crew Friday
The deputy chief of the Alvinston Fire Department knows about stress caused by being the first on the scene of horrific accidents.
And Kris Redick says it is about time volunteer firefighters open up about how it affects them and take advantage of a new program to deal with the stress of the volunteer job.
Redick has been a firefighter for over 20 years. He’s been to countless accidents and fires and can see many of the victims in his mind’s eye when he drives the roads in his community. “You go buy it and you think ‘there was a dead body there’ or ‘we saved somebody there.’ It’s burned in your memory.”
There is another drive that is burned in his memory. November 25, 1995. The night his father, the chief of the Alvinston department, died by suicide.
“I didn’t see him that day so I don’t know what was going on,” Redick told The Independent as he sat in the fire halls boardroom lined with pictures which include his father.
Redick, then 20, was in Watford at a midget hockey game when the arena staff tracked him down to tell him he had to head home. He traveled home in the darkness not knowing his mother had found his dad in the house, along with the suicide note.
The police were there as she told him his father was dead. “I still remember everything.”
When he died, only close family and friends knew what had happened. Redick’s father was an integral part of the community as fire chief and serving as mayor. He was a great public speaker and always joking.
His suicide left Redick angry and confused. But he did suspect one thing which might have been part of his father’s untimely death – the things that he saw as a volunteer firefighter, the memories of one incident after another, of young people taken too soon – was probably a factor in his decision to end his life.
So when a friend pointed out a journalist was looking for first responders who had experienced mental health problem because of their work, Redick thought it was time to speak up.
“It’s been 20 years since dad’s death and it has been hard to talk about it for that long,” he says.
But Friday, the journalist sat down with Redick in the very hall his father worked in – where Redick volunteers hours of his life now – and opened up about what it is like to lose someone to suicide.
He admits it was tough, but Redick says it has to be done. “It’s about time someone talked about it,” he says.
When Redick’s father was a firefighter, no one talked about the inner turmoil they faced. Redick says even now, firefighters have a hard time shedding the tough guy image and opening up about what they’re feeling.
They do have help now. A year ago, fire chiefs across Lambton County set up a Critical Incident Stress Management teem just for volunteer firefighters. Nine firefighters are available to talk when the volunteers are having a hard time dealing with what they’ve seen.
Redick says the Crisis Team is important. “There is lots we see that the normal public doesn’t know,” he says noting in a small community firefighters are often called to the scene to find someone they know in trouble. “We are normal people who see things that aren’t normal.” And for that, he says they need help.
Redick was one of the officers to respond when a young man died and five others were injured when a tent pole hit a hydro wire a couple of years ago. It’s a scene he will never forget – one he wishes that at the time, there would have been something like the crisis team to help.
Redick freely admits he’s leaned heavily on a friend in the fire department to talk when he’s having a hard time coping. And recently he’s sought the help of a professional to help him work through his stress before it overwhelms him.
He’s knows more firefighters could use the help, too. So far this year, at least seven first responders in Ontario have died by suicide. Redick estimates that about 10 or 20 per cent of the people he volunteers with will keep their feelings bottled up.
But he says it is time volunteer firefighters deal openly with tone of the occupational hazards. Redick says it is getting better, but there is still much work to do. “For me it is personal because of what happened with my dad,” he says.
“Now that I know what to look for, all the signs were there; but at the time I didn’t see them. I had no idea how he felt.
“I hadn’t thought deeply about dad’s death. The first 15 years I refused to accept it. I was angry because of what he did.”
But it is that experience that compels him to talk to his volunteers about whether they need help and to open up to journalists about one of the most painful experiences of his life.
“If I can stop one person from going through what I faced…if I could help one person only, that would be good.
“It hurts me more now to see all this going on and to sit back in the corner and say nothing. I’m sick of sitting back and watching this unfold. It’s harder on me than to help promote the message.”