Fault Lines

Drawn-out public inquiries cast doubt on emergency workers, leaving them afraid to take risks that could save lives

Date published: 2006-04-13 10:18:34 AM

In 2000, there were 542 homicides, 43,000 aggravated assaults and 14,000 cases of arson in Canada. Over 60,000 people suffered heart attacks. Close to 3,000 died on the highways.

But behind these numbers lies another, less visible statistic. Among the paramedics, firefighters and police officers who responded to these crises, one in four suffered high to severe levels of post-traumatic stress. Yet they kept working.

Dr. Cheryl Regehr, an associate professor of social work at the University of Toronto, says that it is not uncommon for emergency workers to suffer some symptoms of post-traumatic stress after a harrowing event.

“These people witness a lot of suffering and violence,” she says. “They are exposed to tremendous amounts of blood and gore but for the most part they manage it very well.”

What troubles Regehr are the severe levels of post-traumatic stress that she observed among emergency workers when a highly-publicized event, like the shooting of a police officer or a catastrophic fire, leads to a public inquiry into their actions.

“I found that emergency responders who have been through public inquiries had significantly higher incidence of post-traumatic stress. These reviews can go on for years and in the end, no one ever says what they did was right. The conclusion is often that there isn't enough evidence to say that what they did was wrong.”

This lack of resolution has a great impact on emergency responders and the organizations where they work. Regehr found that after a public inquiry, emergency responders become more cautious. They ask themselves, ‘If I take this risk, I might save a life, but if I do the safe thing, I won’t get in trouble.’

Over the last decade, the number of public inquiries in Canada has increased dramatically with 24-hour news channels dissecting every event as it happens. While Regehr stresses the importance of accountability, her research brings up larger questions of how these very public condemnations impact emergency response teams.

“As a society, we have to think about the goal of these inquiries... At present, the result is higher costs for emergency services as well as highly-stressed and increasingly cautious emergency workers. This may lead to lower quality services and increase the risk to public safety.”

Dr. Cheryl Regehr applies her research on post-traumatic stress in emergency responders as the associate clinical director of the Critical Incident Stress Team at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.