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First responders seek support to avoid long-term trauma

First responder stress
WATCH ABOVE: The wave of overdoses in Vancouver is taking its toll on the wellbeing of those responding to it. Stress and anxiety are on the rise for Vancouver Fire and Rescue workers - who were called out to almost 800 overdose calls in December alone. Jonathan Gormick from Vancouver Fire and Rescue joins Global News with more.

First responders are routinely exposed to traumatic events during their duties which can lead to long-term stress related illnesses.

A BC Ambulance paramedic for over 35 years, Richard Sadowski is one example of a first-aid responder whose life has been affected by the stress of responding to emergency situations.

“It certainly disrupted my family life, it disrupted my relationship with my employer, with my friends. It basically disrupted all areas of my life, there wasn’t anything that was left untouched,” he said.

According to the City of Vancouver, between Feb. 26 and March 5, they received 174 overdose calls, the highest number recorded in the city to date this year.

While most of the calls were in the Downtown Eastside, they also saw a rise in cases from outside the downtown area.

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As a way to help first responders cope, New Westminster’s Justice Institute has developed a new program to help them prepare and respond to stressful situations.

Sadowski says the new program that has been introduced is greatly needed and long overdue because at no point during his career was he provided with skills to cope with the mental strains of the job.

“When I started my career it was basically like go get a Slurpee and get over it and that’s the way we dealt with things. We didn’t talk about it, we kind of buried it,” he said.

READ MORE: B.C. first responders need help with PTSD: ‘we’re there 24/7, 365’

Sadowski admits the symptoms of stress are easy to ignore and the everyday buildup of different emotions is overwhelming especially when he has had to deliver bad news to the families and friends of his patients.

“I have to go talk to the family members and say, despite everything we have done, we can’t do anything more for their loved one and they’ve passed away,” he said.

Sadowski says that since the recent fentanyl crisis a day in the life of a paramedic requires responding to overdoses quite frequently.

For the province, the BC Coroners Service says there were 102 suspected drug overdose deaths in February, an equivalent of about 3.6 deaths per day.

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The February number is a nearly 73 per cent increase over the number of deaths in the same month.

There were a total of 914 overdose deaths in all of 2016, an increase of almost 80 per cent over the number of deaths in the previous year (510).

READ MORE: PM Justin Trudeau set to discuss overdose crisis with first responders in Vancouver

Sadowski says that he gets little to no breaks during a workday, a reality for many first responders.

Firefighters were often the front-line workers in the DTES and were feeling the strain after responding to the thousands of overdoses in 2016 alone.

“It’s not practical,” Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney said at the time about the staffing situation. “I can’t just leave it to two units down there. We don’t know where this is going.”

Adam Vaughn from the Justice Institute of BC says Building Resiliency is an online course that provides advice and support for those who seek it.

“We are trying to prevent the effects of exposure to a traumatic incident, so this is the emotional, the mental side of things that often come when you are exposed in high-stress environments,” said Vaughn.

It is hoped that eventually this program will be easily accessible for all those who face trauma in the work place around the world, free of cost.

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– With files from Yuliya Talmazan and Paula Baker