Ex Windsor Firefighter Continues Saving Lives
Tuesday August 6th, 2013
Posted at 11:00am
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Although there may be no cure for the summertime blues, one counsellor with some unique experiences is trying to help.
Former Windsor Police officer and firefighter Jim Jeannette is putting his many hours on duty to good use. Having an uncommon perspective, he’s found a way to assist others with his private practice.
While it isn’t a connection many would think of, it makes sense to Jeannette.
“Private practice had always been one of my goals,” he said. “I felt that I had a unique life experience with the police and fire services. It exposed me to many trauma situations that many counsellors only read about. I also had many years of providing counselling to people with critical incident stress, depression and anxiety. This gave me firsthand knowledge of effective treatment. Opening my office allowed me the chance to share these experiences and my education.”
Located on 853 Goyeau Street, Jim Jeannette RSW is open for those needing help. The 58-year-old counsellor is also a member of the Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) who specialize in research and practices to treat trauma-related mental health issues: This includes anxiety and depression.
Still, his journey to the profession was longer than most. Fulfilling the childhood dream of joining the police after university, Jeannette took some detours before returning 28-years-later to become a registered social worker.
“It had always been a childhood dream,” he said about putting on the badge. “I applied while still in University and was hired by Windsor Police in December of 1976. It was just four-months after I graduated. I actually worked as a crisis counselor at Turning Point at Assumption University before being hired as a Constable.”
During his 3.5 years with the Windsor police, Jeannette was put on a few different beats. Most of his first year was spent downtown before he was sent to the east side precinct during his second year. The former constable was one of many junior officers who patrolled Drouillard Road before the plan was scrapped about half a day later. After that, he continued on the east side.
As an officer, Jeannette also helped with traffic control during several fire incidents. While not disgruntled with his position, he soon noticed how rewarding the different teamwork between firefighters seemed to be. Seeing the immediate results of their actions and feeling unsure about his role with the Windsor Police, Jeannette decided to make a change.
“At that time it took about five years to get an interview,” he said about the fire department. “I was unsure of my future with the police so I thought five years would give me plenty of time to clarify things. I applied, and a month later, I was called for an interview with the Windsor Fire Department. I didn’t have much time to think about it — Someone from Personnel then forgot to tell me that I was hired by Windsor Fire. On a Friday I received a call from a Police Staff Inspector asking for my resignation as he had just found out that I was starting at Fire on the following Monday. Actually, he didn’t say it quite as politely as that.”
Moving so quickly, Jeannette thought it would be a difficult transition to make. It turns out that his faster than expected career change made things easier. Although it was a steep learning curve with its unique workplace culture and job differences, he maintains that it was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
“The best part was working with other firefighters,” said Jeannette. “It sounds corny but, outside of the military, who gets to work with heroes every day? As a rookie, if you keep your mouth shut and ears open, you learn just as much about firefighting at the dinner table as you do at a fire scene.”
Having worked at every station in the city, Jeannette has definitely seen his fair share of fires too. His first couple of years on the job and last three as captain before retiring were spent at station No. 4 on College Avenue. The majority of his career was divided between there and station No. 5 on Cabana Road.
Despite having no regrets, Jeannette admits that there’s a downside to such an important job however.
“The worst part would be the physical and emotional devastation that you witness members of our community experiencing,” he said. “Even if we did a great job, the chances were that the people who we were helping just had their lives changed forever. There is a saying in the fire service that ‘even our best day on the job is often the worst day of someone else’s life.'”
As a result of the emotional toll these incidents took on some firefighters, a stress committee was created. Peer support and mental health information were made available to members of the department. Knowing it hadn’t always been that way, Jeannette helped with the undertaking and it soon evolved
“When I first started, if something was bothering you, you didn’t dare talk about it,” he said. “We actually started with the creation of the Stress Committee a few years before debriefing became in vogue. Eventually we and other emergency services began to focus on Critical Incident Stress. This led to the introduction and use of debriefing as a mental health tool for personnel involved in critical incidents. Now the Windsor Fire Department Peer Support team has moved away from debriefings. We use a modified Psychological First Aid approach.”
Even though he didn’t consider it a hint to where his career was headed, Jeannette’s counseling and peer support at the fire department brought him full circle. At their request, his services were occasionally extended to the community. Despite having lots of experience with counseling and trauma, he still only had a general B.A. in psychology however. This is what got Jeannette thinking about going back to school.
Although he was only 49-years-old and far from retirement, the idea excited him. Still, there was plenty of work ahead: Jeannette had to finish the honors portion of his undergraduate degree before grad school was even an option.
Luckily, the firefighter had a plan of action and was prepared to see it through.
“It’s funny to say that something was hard but yet wasn’t,” said Jeannette. “There is tremendous power in going about any task when you have a purpose. I had a plan and was very focused about following it. I also knew that if I wanted to get into Grad school I would need good grades.”
Jeannette couldn’t have reached his goals without extra support. His co-workers at the fire department covered shifts when needed while his daughters Marie and Lauren studied with him. Not only did it assist their dad, the experience brought the family closer together as well.
“I would definitely say that him being in school at the same time as my sister and I brought us together,” said 26-year-old Marie. “My dad has always been very interested and involved in our lives, especially in our schooling. This provided an additional perspective to him about how much the system had changed since he was last in school. It was definitely a motivating factor to me to see how hard he was working in school while balancing being a full-time firefighter and an active and supportive member of our family. It was also really a great relief and point of comedy when we could sit around and commiserate about our classes together.”
Of course, different challenges arose out of Jeannette’s schooling. Marie remembers one of them being juggling the vehicles so that everyone could get to their respective schools on time. Jeannette’s wife Sue was accommodating during this period, making sure things ran smoothly — something not lost on the rest of the family.
Although many dinners were spent discussing assignments, they made time for each other. Eating more lunches together, Jeannette also traded time with other firefighters to make his schedule manageable: one even worked for him without allowing Jeannette to pay the time back.
With this support, it was possible for him to get at least A’s on all assignments and tests. He also handed many in early during his honours program at the University of Windsor and masters program at Wayne State University.
Jeannette’s family is proud of his accomplishments but admit it wasn’t a cakewalk either.
“I am very proud of my dad getting his masters in social work,” said Marie. “I know how much work, time and care he put into upgrading his bachelor’s degree or writing a thesis to even qualify for admission into the masters program alone. All the while being a firefighter full-time and an active family man. No matter how difficult some of his courses were (and some were very very difficult), he always put in the effort and took the steps to do his best, joining study groups and tutoring sessions even.”
Since graduating, Jeannette has extended his resources to the community. Beyond his private practice, he’s also the mental health professional for Windsor Fire and Rescue Service (WFRS), which includes directing a peer support program that’s jointly-supported by the Windsor Professional Firefighters Association (WPFFA) and the WFRS Administration. If that wasn’t enough, Jeannette was invited to Baltimore in March as a guest of the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation. Due to his research in the field, Jeannette was the only therapist in Canada invited for the unveiling of their new U.S. national mental health program for firefighters.
Loving his current profession, Jeannette still can’t stop finding connections to his past career however.
“I find that helping people through their pain is very rewarding,” he said. “I no longer think of December 2011 as my retirement day, I think of it as my transition day. I am now a Registered Social Worker. From the first client I saw, it just felt right. People who are willing to do the work find that they get positive results faster than expected. It’s kind of like firefighting, you help people get their lives back. Fire ground tactics provide great metaphors for mental health counseling.”