Skip to main content

Into darkness

In this latest installment in an ongoing series, journalist Janice Landry explores the staggering price heroic first-responders pay, and her personal connection to their story

By |
Paul MacKenzie

Paul MacKenzie

Writer’s note: This is the third in my series of four stories for Halifax Magazine telling the story of my late father, a decorated and respected Halifax firefighter, and, all first responders—people who routinely and selflessly put themselves in harm’s way for the good of others. In this installment, we examine the toll this line of work can take. Keep in mind, the terms Critical Incident Stress (CIS) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were rarely heard, let alone understood, when Basil (Baz) Landry joined the Halifax Fire Department in 1957.

First responders have a history of heroism—but they pay a powerful emotional toll.

Baz Landry, like all first responders, regularly ventured into the unknown; he fought hundreds of fires and helped at countless accidents over his 31 years, before retiring in 1988. On one occasion we were forced to celebrate Christmas on a different day because dad had battled a blaze where a child died. I didn’t know that fact until I was an adult. My father didn’t tell me about it; my mother, Theresa, remembers. Without a doubt, the tragic loss would have hit close to home, him being the father of a young child.

Dad never did tell me about a lot of what went on. The lack of discussion about his job as a first responder isn’t really surprising. Such silence is common in his profession. I have met and spoken with a large number of retired Halifax firefighters before and after Dad’s 2006 death. Some, if not all of them, now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, can recall even the tiniest of details like they happened yesterday; the ones that still linger, and, on occasion, painfully resurface.

Most of them say, off the job, they never talked about it much.

I believe my father remained relatively close-mouthed because he wanted to shield us from details we didn’t need to know. Landry’s friend and peer, 64-year-old Rob (Bob) Brown of Dartmouth, agrees with me. Brown retired from firefighting in 2007, in his 30th year on the job.

Meeting Brown has shed even more light on what happened on October 2, 1978, and, also, what might have happened. Rob Brown says he was the first firefighter to enter 3390 Federal Avenue, the scene of the fire, from the front. It is a two-storey unit in attached, row housing. Brown, alone, was wearing a breathing apparatus. Back in the 1970s, Brown explains, firefighters’ air packs were stored in plastic cases in compartments on the fire engines. The first firefighters to
rush into a structure typically never wore breathing apparatus.

Brown rode to the fire on 7 Engine, the first truck to arrive. Dad was with driver Young, on Rescue 2, the second at the scene, “The way we did it out of Bayers Road [fire station] at that time, if there was a situation where there is going to be a search, one person will put a breathing apparatus on, that was me, on this occasion, and go into the building and try and do a search,“ says Brown.

The firefighters knew, via radio commun-ication, and, from people screaming outside, that a baby was trapped upstairs. Brown raced to put on his air pack. He estimates that took him about 30-60 seconds. He ascended the inside stairwell. By the time he got to the top, he says he was forced to crawl because he couldn’t see through the thick smoke.

In 1978, Brown was a novice firefighter on the job only 10 months. This was his first search for a person trapped inside a fire; and, it was an infant.

Brown was worried. He was afraid he would not get to the child in time. He did now know my father had made an almost physically-impossible entry into the child’s rear bedroom window and was already inside, without wearing any breathing apparatus.

Brown says he first searched, at the top of the steps, what turned out to be the bathroom. He then made it into the baby’s bedroom. He thinks at least another two minutes had passed by this time. It’s now approximately 2.5 to three minutes since his arrival.

Brown couldn’t see anything in the baby’s room, at first. When he crawled farther inside, he saw the outline of a firefighter in the very dim light of the window, giving a baby mouth-to-mouth. He didn’t realize it was Landry until he got up close because of the thick smoke. “It’s a matter of seconds. You’re not into minutes at this point. I was so happy to see your father there because I know that the child wouldn’t have survived. I was standing there with him and the baby, and, if he didn’t have the baby, I’m sure I would have hugged him.”

Brown was utterly flabbergasted that another firefighter was already in the bedroom before him—he was designated as the first-in, the search man, “I’m shaking my head. I remember saying to Baz: ‘How the hell did you get in here?’ I think he kind of chuckled
and said something like, ‘I came in through the window.’”

Landry had made an extremely difficult entry: up a trellis, across a gutter, smashing the bedroom window with his helmet, while hanging on with one hand, and then swinging himself up and inside. Those actions saved the crucial few minutes.

Despite the happy ending, from 35-years-ago, the what-ifs still roll around Brown’s mind. “This is my first search. I’m the only guy in there at the time when somebody tells you a baby’s in there and you know the place is charged with smoke. Therefore, there’s no oxygen to breathe, especially with an infant—that infant is going to suffocate. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to find that child. If I don’t find the child, the child is not going to survive, and, I’m the guy in there, and, I can’t find it, and, I’m inadequate because I didn’t do what I should have done.’”

Brown still thinks about what might have happened if Landry had not got to the child first: “What if I got in and the child was deceased?”

Thankfully, the what-ifs, could-have’s, should-haves we all routinely think about never took on a menacing twist for Brown. He says the responding crew, #7 Company, was jubilant over the team rescue. But, that outcome is not the case for many people, including first responders, who can often be plagued by the what-ifs over a lifetime.

Paul MacKenzie, a former, veteran Halifax police officer, should know.

He does know.

He still lives it.

Paul MacKenzie has been working for 10 years as the Coordinator of the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Firefighters & Family Assistance Program (FFAP). We’ve known each other for many years; firstly because I had covered crime for CTV for many years, and, secondly, after I left television to freelance, I knew him socially through a common friend, the late Gary Martin, who was also a former police officer.

I never knew about MacKenzie’s current position at FFAP or the heartbreaking events that led him to it, until I started researching for this series and a book I am writing. We met at his office in Dartmouth to discuss PTSD and CIS. MacKenzie explained the acute, yet most common reactions, of first responders and others to critical incidents.

Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • No Appetite/Over Eating
  • Isolation from Others
  • Tremendous Anxiety to Return to Work
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Overly Quiet

MacKenzie elaborates on number four: “In terms of isolation from others, it is like: ‘I just want to stay down the basement and watch TV there. I don’t want to answer the phone. I don’t want to be around people.’”

The FFAP coordinator says that with number five, the stress over returning to work involves a person’s deep concern over being placed in a similar situation again. “The thing to remember is that it is very much an individual thing. What may be a critical incident to me may not be to you. We just can’t paint everybody with the same brush.”

PTSD and CIS are different for everyone.

According to MacKenzie, the incident in question doesn’t have to involve the loss of life. It can be that person’s perception that a life was in danger. “PTSD happens from exposure to a critical incident, whatever that critical incident may be perceived to be to that individual. You don’t always have to see someone dead, you don’t necessarily have to be shot, for example, but, the fact that you thought you were going to be shot—it’s a critical incident for that particular individual.”

MacKenzie has firsthand experience.

I was involved in Critical Incident Stress Management as one who suffered from PTSD, who continues to suffer from PTSD. Once you have it, you have it. It doesn’t go away. You learn how to manage it through counselling and it sometimes requires medication…often it’s a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. For example, for a police officer or a firefighter, you are trained to go and save. All of a sudden, you can’t use that training because of circumstances bigger than all of us, and, in spite of all the training you have, there’s nothing you can do.

–Paul MacKenzie

I think of my late father and his friends and peers and the stories they have told me. I think of what my friends and peers and I have witnessed covering the news.

“For example, if you are a firefighter and another should die in a line-of-duty death, often those who are with them suffer from survivor’s guilt,” MacKenzie says. “Those left behind ask questions like, ‘Why him or her and not me? How did I get out and he or she did not?’ That would be a critical incident.”

This is very close to what happened to MacKenzie when he was a police officer. “Drinking was very much part of the culture,” he recalls. “I was 28. For me it was a number of incidents. It wasn’t one. But there was one, in particular, that sort of brought it to a head…I had been on the job for eight years. I just turned 20 when I started. I was involved in a situation where a police officer died. I felt very much responsible. Looking back, I did the best I could. Back then, I got into the what-ifs, could-haves, should-haves; for a lot of years I lived with that.”

MacKenzie continues.

“I remember exactly the next day of absolutely getting hammered and going back down to where the family [of the officer] was and I remember thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ From there, it just got worse. The drinking got worse. I couldn’t talk about it…it was just a mess. November 14, 1984, I attempted suicide.”

A long pause. MacKenzie collects himself.

“I had a three-year-old who wasn’t keen on his father, for a lot of reasons. It just started spinning out of control. So, as a result of that [suicide attempt] I knew I needed help.”

He started an alcohol treatment program the week before. “After November 14, I knew I had a big-time problem,” MacKenzie says. “I remember that day quite well…I hated work. I hated everybody associated with work. I was having a lot of problems with my family. It wasn’t them as much as it was me. I was having nightmares; reliving the whole thing: ‘Why didn’t I do this?’”

The what-ifs kept coming.

“So, at this point, I just went home. I had a .38 [service revolver] and I put it to my head. I remember this like it just happened. I had a misfire…Never had a misfire in my career…I didn’t try again. I knew I needed help.”

After that, MacKenzie began to turn it around, finding peace in helping others; first by assisting, in the 1980s, the Halifax Regional Police to develop its PSTD and CIS programming and then later, and currently, with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency.

“Even when I worked with police, I also dealt with a lot of firefighters,” he recalls. “It was mostly hard-core alcoholics, those with suicidal behaviours. We did a lot of those. A lot of people involved in the program [FFAP] helping were in recovery. We had our own struggles of one sort of another. That kind of made it easier to reach out. Often people say, ‘Well, you don’t know how it is.’ I’ll say, ‘I don’t know how you’re feeling, but, I think I got a pretty good handle on it.’”

As a former first responder with his own demons, MacKenzie knows it’s not out of the ordinary for first responders to internalize how they are feeling, “You can’t experience something that is pretty horrific and not feel it,” he says. “This is all about feelings. I often say when I teach CIS Management, ‘It’s the easiest course you’ll have to take. Never, in the next two days, will you have to think. Because it is not about thinking, it’s about feeling, especially if you are an experienced person.’ It’s about feelings associated with those experiences.”

The FFAP program has now grown to include four chaplains and more than 22 career firefighters who volunteer as FFAP referral agents. “We have two people who are on-call 24/7,” MacKenzie says. “And, we have volunteer firefighters in the other districts outside of the core of HRM…this is a very busy program.”

Since MacKenzie started in 2003, FFAP has made 836 referrals for counselling and other services: “Men and women. That’s not counting the people we meet at Tim Hortons or that pop in here [the Dartmouth office.] Those are the people who actually went for referrals.”

They may be retired veterans, current members or family and loved ones. “In my experience, in my professional career, and I’ve been around a long time, you can’t go through something like that and not have it affect you in some form,” he says. “It may not hit you today or tomorrow, but we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road.”

People often take it on themselves.

That makes the historical lack of discu-ssion displayed more understandable. How can someone, anyone, be involved in, or witness, loss of life or frightening close calls and not be affected? What if you, or someone you love, did that over and over again?

MacKenzie concludes: “I’ve heard people say this many times, ‘I never take my work home.’ But, when they come in [their homes] they don’t talk to anyone for 20 minutes. They got to have their time. Then I’ll say, ‘Do you think you take your work home?’ Absolutely. You’re human and we all do it to varying degrees.”

If you or someone you know needs help, contact:
Paul MacKenzie, FFAP Coordinator 

Office: (902) 490-6271
Cell: (902) 483-6068
Mackenp@halifax.ca

  • Lee Martin

    Powerful article. Thank You for sharing!

  • Dave Lahn

    I Have to agree with Mrs.Martin
    Very Powerfull
    Thanks for sharing this
    ~Dave

Warning!

You are using an outdated browser. Things may not appear as intended. We recommend updating your browser to the latest version.

Close