Vol. 79, No. 2Cover stories

RCMP officers lift packs of water bottles off of a truck.

A mental health checkpoint

More than 300 RCMP officers from across Canada stepped in to help the Wood Buffalo Detachment, bringing water, resources and gas masks to support on the ground efforts. Credit: Rene Huot, RCMP


After four days of non-stop work evacuating and patrolling the burning city of Fort McMurray, all RCMP employees from the Wood Buffalo detachment were called to meet in Edmonton.

Alberta's commanding officer gave all 136 officers, and several civilian employees, two weeks of leave and instructed them to check in at a reception centre. There, RCMP doctors treated employees for smoke inhalation and any scrapes and burns, while a team of psychologists assessed their well-being.

"When you're affected by something and you police in that place, it's like a double whammy," says Dr. Barbara Schmalz, a psychologist with the RCMP. "They were flipping between being a first responder and being an affected regular citizen."

Schmalz and four other psychologists met with every employee for a 30-minute one-on-one chat about their mental health. They made sure all employees who needed help were connected with resources right away.

"Having that immediate, individual touch point in a disaster is key," says Schmalz. "If you build a rapport early, people don't have trouble picking up the phone down the road when they're struggling."

One week after that meeting in Edmonton, the psychologists touched base with each person again to assess who was ready to return to work. They helped those who were prepared reintegrate into the workplace, and kept the lines of communication open for those who weren't.

The psychologists are still visiting Fort McMurray on a monthly basis, helping employees cope and prepare for the one year anniversary of the fires in May 2017.

"People need to know what to expect so they know there's nothing wrong with them when they react a certain way," says Schmalz. "Especially police and first responders, who often feel like they should be able to handle anything."

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