Three years ago, when Airdronian Mo Shaukat, reached out to Boots On The Ground, an anonymous helpline that provides peer support to other first responders, he was hoping to volunteer as a peer support individual himself. However, he quickly learned that the organization, which is based in Ontario, did not have an Alberta chapter.
Shaukat, who works as a first responder, though his occupation is not being elaborated on for privacy reasons, still hoped to volunteer for the organization when and if they came to the province. Sometime later it dawned on him that he could go one step further and lead the charge in opening an Alberta Chapter. After having contacted the founder, a police officer who founded the organization out East, Shaukat began to lay the groundwork for an Alberta Boots On The Ground group.
"It's a peer support group for first responders by first responders. When anybody who needs somebody to talk to, the call is not answered by a psychologist or psychiatrist or therapist, it is answered by another first responder," he said. "They have lived through the problems that first responders face, whether it's the mental, emotional, or physical challenges. They may better understand what the caller is going through because they have gone through it themselves."
He stressed that the peer support group is not in any way shape or form meant to be seen as comprehensive mental health help and should not be seen as a substitute for seeking mental health professionals including phycologists or psychiatrists. It should instead be seen as a way to be able to confide in another first responder, in complete confidentially. He also underlined that those who are wanting to become call takers must either be working first responders or retired.
"We strive to provide information and support for anybody who is in distress. We are a volunteer organization, we do not have any accreditation for providing psychological, medical or any health services. We are just here to listen to our fellow first responders, to our brothers and sisters."
Drawing on his own personal experiences, Shaukat said that it's not about not wanting to seek out professional mental health help that made him want to volunteer, it was more the point that as a first responder, he sometimes was unable to discuss certain things he experienced at work with his family or other colleagues.
"The jobs we do as first responders are quite unique and they're not relatable. If you haven't done the job, you can't relate to the experience. A common theme that we have heard, which is wrong is that it's what you signed up for. No. None of us signed up for the mental anguish and the toll it takes on us, on our families," Shaukat said. "We signed up to serve our fellow humans, and that's our profession. In my personal opinion, I don't think humans are designed or were built to go through those experiences that first responders go through."
While the Boots On The Ground Alberta Chapter is slated to be operational in September 2023, there is much work to be done before then, including recruiting volunteers and fundraising. Shaukat said that the majority of the funds will be used for training that all volunteers will be mandated to go through before they can take any calls. Those who hope to join Shaukat will have to complete the Critical Incident Stress Management training, as well as Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training, along with other in-house training that Boots on The Ground Alberta will be providing. He has also petitioned various unions and other labour organizations for funding and is hoping to have a donation website set up in the near future.
When asked why he himself wanted to become a first responder, Shaukat said that it is something one is born with; the innate need to help others.
"I was always attracted to emergency workers, to uniforms. Then as one grows up, one realizes one wants to help people. I wanted to serve other people and that's what I did," he said. "You'll also notice that a lot of first responders are involved in a lot of other community aspects, whether coaching kids or other aspects and that's because they just want to keep on giving. I think that's just how it is."
For those interested in applying to Boots On The Ground Alberta or to find out more, the organization has a Facebook page, as well as a website.
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