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Edmonton's new fire chief bringing 'innovative mindset' to mental health

Edmonton's 17th Fire Chief Joe Zatylny poses for a photo at Fire Station 1, in Edmonton Friday June 26, 2020.
Edmonton's 17th Fire Chief Joe Zatylny poses for a photo at Fire Station 1, in Edmonton Friday June 26, 2020.

Edmonton’s new fire chief is using an “innovate mindset” as he takes the service into a new era.

Joe Zatylny is one month into his tenure as the top brass of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS). He follows in the footsteps of former chief Ken Block , who announced his resignation in December after a career spanning 40 years, including 10 at the helm.

The Oilers fan says his passion has been around mental health and diversity and he plans to make them his top priorities as chief.

“I think mental health is a priority in any workplace and undoubtedly in the fire service, and the mental toll that this profession takes on staff is very real,” Zatylny said. “As a fire service and the chief of a fire service, we need to put a major focus on that and I think it ties right into a fundamental safety in this profession and we need to keep that top of mind.”

He’s no stranger to addressing mental health needs for first responders. It made up part of his portfolio as a deputy chief in Calgary, where he worked on a psychological assessment pilot project.

“It was a once-a-year check-in for first responders so that they can get easier access to treatment. It better supported resiliences and it’s continued to reduce the stigma around mental health, and the pilot is still running,” Zatynly said.

He said that’s something he will consider bringing to EFRS, but first he needs to get a better understanding of what’s already happening within the service.

“What have we tried, what haven’t we tried and what are some of the things that this particular department needs to be better supported in the work that they do every day?” Zatylny said. “I’ll be bringing that innovative mindset to the great work that’s already being done here.”

Returning to work

Another part of his mental health portfolio in Calgary was looking after how people return to work after taking a leave of absence.

“As the mental health situation increases and becomes more prominent, as you reduce the stigma and there’s more mental health needs of first responders, part of that is making sure that they can successfully come back to the workplace and that they’re looked after, and we make that transition as easy as possible and we find ways to best support them,” Zatylny said.

He said programs in those areas were just starting to get off the ground as he was leaving for his new position in Edmonton.

“We want people who give and sacrifice much of their lives, their family time and in their health in this profession, we want them at the end of their profession to have a long and healthy retirement. We do. And I think they’ve earned it. That’s the least we can do as leaders and so my focus areas are really aimed to target that.”

Another priority for Zatylny is diversity and inclusion. He said it’s an area where fire services are challenged, but focusing on increasing cultural and gender diversity within EFRS will help them build new connections with the community.

“Further to that, we leverage that individuality that makes us a greater service and I think the fire department has always tried to do that to some degree, and my focus area will be to continue to move down those roads,” Zatylny said.

“I think first and foremost … my personal belief is diversity fuels innovation and it contributes to our evolution, and different backgrounds and personal journeys bring new ideas to the table and help us challenge our assumptions, and that’s something every essential service needs.”

Public education

One ongoing issue for EFRS is improper disposal of smoking materials causing fires that are 100 per cent preventable.

“If I had to ask anything, I would say stop, please, everyone,” Zatylny said. “They cause some of the most destructive fires displacing residents. Last year alone, smoking-material fires resulted in over $6.8 million in property damage, and that’s quite significant, and when you think of the lives and the people that were disrupted in the process, it’s so hard on people and the risks and everything else involved that it’s something that I think we can do better on.”

Another area of concern for Zatylny is fires caused by cooking and he plans to focus and enhance public education in that area.

“Last year cooking fires resulted in more than $2.6 million in property damage. In most cases these fires are caused by overheating cooking oil on stove tops and leaving it unattended, and this is definitely something that is largely preventable and we need to take steps forward to reduce.”

Zatylny said it can take a toll on firefighters who attend those calls, especially when they are significant fires.

“We really need to focus and continue focusing on educating people and reaching people that we may not be reaching because of other barriers that might be out there,” Zatylny said. “That’s something that I need to examine and learn more closely about and take steps to action as the new fire chief here.”

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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