North Shore Firefighters add Autism Awareness Training to their emergency response arsenal

The District of North Vancouver Fire & Rescue Service (DNVFRS) is the second only service in Canada to complete a specialized training program that helps fire fighters deal more effectively during emergencies with people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviours.

“Emergencies are stressful for everyone involved. However we know that the anxiety and stress experienced by a person with ASD in an emergency will be even greater. By understanding autism, fire fighters can use strategies to help reduce the level of stress and anxiety during an incident, communicate more effectively with the person involved and, in doing so, provide a better level of service to the community overall.“ District Fire Chief Victor Penman

People with ASD often have unusual responses to sensory input. They have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information or stimuli, such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes and movement. They may experience seemingly ordinary stimuli as painful, unpleasant or confusing.

“Being aware that a person with autism can be hyper or hypo-sensitive to stimuli is crucial knowledge, especially during an emergency incident when fire fighters have to be ‘hands-on’ with the patient,” says Chief Penman.

Benefits of the training program

The specialized Autism Awareness training for all 130 DNVFRS personnel was developed in partnership with Canucks Autism Network (CAN) of Vancouver. The program:

  • educates fire fighters about ASD
  • educates fire fighters in ways to identify a person with ASD
  • increases fire fighters’ awareness of how an emergency  incident involving a person with ASD can differ from regular calls
  • teaches fire fighters techniques and strategies to use when responding to an incident involving a person with ASD

Developed in partnership with Canucks Autism Network (CAN) of Vancouver

“At Canucks Autism Network, we believe that it is crucial for first responders to be able to better identify and understand autism, as a means to respond effectively and safely in situations involving individuals on the spectrum,” says CAN Marketing and Communications Manager, Lindsay Petrie.

“We’re thrilled by the interest in our training program and hope to eventually extend this important initiative beyond first responders. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that anyone who comes into contact with an individual with autism is equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and strategies to best support them and communication with them.”

Emergencies and individuals with ASD

Research has shown that first responders are seven times more likely than the public to come into contact with an individual with ASD.

A person with ASD is 48 percent more likely to wander (without purpose) or elope (with purpose, secretively) from a safe environment. Fully one-third of children with ASD who wander or elope from a safe environment are unable to communicate their name, address, or phone number.

From 2009 to 2011 in the United States (Canadian numbers not available) accidental drowning accounted for 91 percent of the deaths of children with ASD who wandered or eloped from a safe environment. Firefighters involved in searches for missing children with ASD are being trained to focus on nearby bodies of water first, and to work with parents/caretakers to glean information about the child’s specific ritualized routines that may provide help in finding them.

April is Autism Awareness month in North America, and April 2 is recognized worldwide as Autism Awareness Day.