Firefighter launches book to spark family conversations

Four years ago, New Zealand firefighter Kris Kennett lost a friend and colleague to suicide. As he witnessed the family’s distress at the funeral, he wondered what could be done to save other first responders from suffering in silence. He began to explore how organizations can better support the wellbeing of their personnel, and eventually came across the First Responders Trauma Prevention and Recovery Certificate program at SFU.

“As far as I could see, the program at SFU was the most comprehensive choice internationally,” he explains. “I wanted to gain an awareness and understanding, and learn tangible skills that I could then pass on to personnel I work alongside.”

The online program welcomes students from all first-response fields across Canada and beyond, and Kris appreciated being able to connect with a diversity of other learners: “I found the communication with other passionate people the most useful, reinforcing the fact that the struggles we face in our organizations are no different. Learning from each other, working together and sharing ideas is key.”

Through the program, Kris says he gained a holistic view of the importance of social supports to emergency responders. “It gave me the confidence and skills to facilitate psychological awareness workshops, build wellness modules and reinvigorate our peer support team,” he says.

To complete the program, students develop a capstone project that they can take to their employers to benefit their organizations. By the time he started the capstone course, Kris already had a project well underway: a book for the children of first responders.

“It wasn’t until I was deep in the program that I really understood the importance of having support mechanisms at home, of family support,” he recalls. “I had an aha moment when I realized there were no resources for children.”

Kris is a career firefighter who also works with the New Zealand Firefighters Welfare Society, which provides health care and other supports for members. As part of a wellbeing initiative, the society released The Wolf Was Not Sleeping, a book conceived by Kris and written by renowned New Zealand children’s author Avril McDonald.

The colourfully illustrated book, about a young wolf who lies awake worrying for the safety of his firefighting father, was created to initiate important conversations within families of first responders. As the child of a firefighter and now a father himself, the subject was close to Kris’s heart. 

“We all come home after work angry, upset or frustrated at times,” he says. “The little ‘sponges’ at home recognize that and pick up on it. The book is a great way to open the conversation.”

Thousands of copies have now been distributed to fire and emergency personnel across New Zealand and have even made their way to York Regional Police’s peer support program in Ontario. A pilot project is also underway to adapt and distribute the book for first responders in Texas.

Kris and the society have received numerous comments and expressions of gratitude from first responders who connected with the book’s universal message about the importance of family and leaning on one another in difficult times. “Hearing that first-hand feedback from peers and emergency responders overseas has made the whole project worthwhile,” he says.

He credits the SFU program with sparking the idea and stoking his drive to produce the book: “I think this is exactly the intention of the instructors: to bring a project to life that helps advance the agenda of mental wellbeing for first responders everywhere.”

By Kim Mah