Crossfield firefighter Captain Joe Holstein has spent nearly four decades with the city’s Volunteer Fire Department. Holstein joined in the early 1980s when he was 15 years old. Photos in an album he shows, harken back to an era of long, scruffy hair and a youthful, devil-may-care look.
Holstein who is now 54, would follow in his brother’s footsteps who was also a captain at the fire hall. On Christmas Eve 1983, Holstein would participate, as he always did, in the annual Santa Claus candy cane run.
“The chief at that time came up to me and said, ‘we could really use your help. I want you here right after the holiday.’ So, I came down and signed up.”
When Holstein was a fledgling firefighter there was little formal training in place when it came to the actual operational portion of firefighting and even less discussion on how to deal with particularly traumatic calls.
“It was baptism by fire. It was; you're signed up, if you hear the air raid siren, you come down. Back in the day, you would go on these bad calls and there was just no talking about it,” he said. “It was kind of man up, suck it up, get over it type attitude.”
Holstein readily admits that in his earlier days he adopted this type of attitude, though he himself would respond to countless devastating calls during his career. In 2014, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, Holstein is an adamant proponent of openly discussing his experiences and struggles in the hopes that it will shed light on the issue within the first responder community and especially for his fellow firefighters.
And it isn’t just Holstein who is talking openly and recognizing the effects his work has on his mental health. Recently, The Alberta Municipal Health and Safety Association (AMHSA) launched free mental health training and PTSI resources for rural and remote Alberta firefighters.
According to a press release, compared to other provinces, Alberta firefighters have the highest rate of mental health time-loss claims, at 48 per 100,000. The press release cited the Workers Compensation Board of Alberta, had nearly 700 claims for first responders related to PTSI, totalling $104 million worth of related treatment and compensation.
For Holstein, one of the earliest and most traumatic calls he attended was when he was 18 years old.
“I ended up pulling a close friend out of a lake that drowned. We went to recover the body and I personally recovered the body. Nightmares for a long time over that. You know, depression, anxiety,” Holstein said as his voice trembled.
As he recounts other devastating calls involving horrific motor vehicle crashes, Holstein sheds tears. The tears are unabashed and unhidden, something that at one time was difficult for him to fathom, but something that he now embraces as he reflects upon what it means living with PTSD as an active firefighter.
“I had a very good friend who was a firefighter here. We talked about the bad calls that we were on and unfortunately, years later, he committed suicide. I want to get the message out that [firefighters] are seeing stuff that a person should not see. You know, oftentimes people say, ‘how do you do this job?’ You do it, but you pay a price.”
What is perhaps the most haunting is that the firefighter took his life once told Holstein that he would always be there for him if things ever got to a crisis point. Holstein has paid that price many times over and yet he continues to serve his community. When asked why he continues to do what he does, the answer is simple. The good outweighs the bad.
“The good calls are so rewarding. I've saved lives. I did CPR on a lady here in town and she took me to lunch, like how rewarding is that? You go through a lot of bad things but there’s great stuff too: the camaraderie, the feeling of helping people, the pride in the community.”
Holsten also credits his wife, Cheryl Longeway, as part of his ability to manage his PTSD.
“My wife Cheryl is just a gift from God. She understands that I can go to her to talk about the bad calls. She understands this is why I am the way I am. She loves me for who I am.”
Longeway is an instructor at the Academy of Learning Career College. Longeway has 30 years of mental health expertise. Her uncle also served in the Crossfield Fire Department.
“When Joe and I got together, and he had his diagnosis of PTSD, I really took a look at what are we doing for our firefighters with PTSD, especially volunteer firefighters,” she said.
At that time the CAO asked Cheryl if with her expertise she may be able to do something to bring awareness to the issue. She would prepare and present various presentations for firefighters on the topic. Longeway said in her research she has found that volunteer firefighters have a higher disposition to develop PTSD.
“I think [one of the things] that factors in is that the people that are wanting to be volunteer firefighters, they're volunteering to be firefighters not to learn about mental health. This isn't their primary job,” she said. “I don't think we have the formalized programs in place.”
While both Holstein and Longeway did underline there is what is called a critical incident debriefing after traumatic calls, Longeway believes there is still a stigma that stops many from discussing their struggles.
“When you originally called Joe to talk about this, his first reaction was, 'I don't think I can do it,’ and I said, ‘well, the problem is there is a stigma, Joe,’” she said. “You put it out to the fire department. You talk about it now, but he's only started talking about it since we've been together.”
Holstein admits that there are some people that have distanced themselves from him, but he also remembers an event in which his openness with the younger firefighters on a call resulted in reciprocation.
“We're coming back from this call and I was the senior man. I pulled over the truck on the way back, shut it off, and said, ‘guys, how are you with that call?’ And everybody's in the back was, ‘Oh, I'm good, Joe,’” Holstein said. “And I said, ‘okay, guys, well I'm not. That was absolutely horrific. Within a week, two of those members called me saying, ‘thank you, Joe. I didn’t want to admit it, but yes, I'm having problems with that.’”
When Holstein's spouse was asked the same question, why he continues to do what he does, despite the trauma he has suffered, Longeway said he cares.
"There was a crow downtown that had fallen out of the tree on Main Street and my mom phoned all upset," Longeway said. "I told Joe and he got up, went downtown, and shooed the crow off the street. He went back and checked on it several times. I think that makes the PTSD harder because he just cares so much and so when something happens, he's so devastated by it."
The program being offered by AMHSA is being offered at no charge to 375 firefighters and leaders who work in fire stations registered in rural and remote municipalities across Alberta. Pilot program sessions take place this June, with programs running throughout 2022 and the first quarter of 2023.
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