“I am as comfortable with a chainsaw as I am using a sewing machine.”
Brenda Tirrell, Firefighter and Founder is the tour de force behind 9runrun.
Starting a position as a Firefighter at the age of 50 is rare. Brenda Tirrell is one of the oldest women in Canada working in fire suppression. Tirrell doesn’t shirk from challenges. She embraces them. Endurance, perseverance, commitment, and connection are core values Tirrell embodies in her work and personal life.
“Getting trained was intimidating,” recalls Brenda. All Firefighters receive the same training, which means 70+ lbs of gear in challenging conditions like extreme heat and cold. But Tirrell was healthy and determined. As a trained scuba diver, she was no stranger to a breathing apparatus or gear and had skills, like conserving air. “Conserving energy, regulating breathing, and staying calm are crucial skills for scuba diving and firefighting, so I was better off than some who hadn’t done this before.”
Brenda joined Station 81 (Sttitsville), working there for 12 years before transferring last year to Constance Bay.
“My first call was a chimney fire and I was told “Go start the chainsaw and then meet me on the roof!” I couldn’t believe it, my most extreme idea of fire suppression on the first call!”
In the first year as a Firefighter, a colleague asked Tirrell to use her race know-how and network to set up a half marathon fundraiser in support of youth addiction and mental health services. Interest for the annual run grew. The next year a 3K for kids and a 10K were added to the half marathon with another youth mental health charity chosen as the beneficiary. The third year a 10K was added and the 3K became a 2K for the kiddos. This is how 9runrun was born! Twelve years later it is still growing and building momentum. Each year a new beneficiary was chosen, really cool shirts were designed, and First Responders in Ottawa joined the community in a healthy way.
“It’s not the firefighting exactly, it’s the community support. To be there for people in moments where it really matters, when there is a crisis aside from fires, like car accidents, moments where knowing people matter, knowing who to call. These are your friends, neighbours and children,” confides Tirrell sincerely.
“Coming together for another reason, other than emergency, is important and builds camaraderie among all First Responders at any stage in their careers,” shares Tirrell.
Firefighters, Police, and Paramedics foster healthy competition through 9runrun and vie for bragging rights on fundraising, registrations, and race times. “A trophy is awarded for the most fundraising, which historically, tends to go to the Paramedics.”
Over time, the charity focus of 9runrun shifted toward First Responder-supporting organizations. The realities of Police, Paramedics, and Firefighters can take a toll on the most hearty helpers. Mental health education and resources became an emerging priority through the lifespan of 9runrun and has always been a focus for the chosen charity.
Who helps the helpers? Where do the people who sacrifice for others go to fill their cup or heal? Who can those who endure and persevere turn to when they are at the limit of their abilities? How can we connect people with services easily and reduce barriers?
“My friend was struggling to find the right resources for his situation and said, “I need a magnet for services, I don’t know what I am missing or where to go,” and this is the basis for the creation of the Ottawa First Responder Foundation (OFRF), incorporated as a Canadian Registered Charity 3 years ago.”
“There has got to be something more we could do for ourselves!?” Brenda recalls exclaiming to a struggling colleague about the challenges they were facing accessing services. “Each service has benefits and funds to support in certain situations, but there are some situations where benefits or entitlements are different or non-existent. The City as an employer does what it can. I want us to help provide low-barrier support.”
There is general acknowledgement of job-related stress and crisis level incidents experienced by First Responders compared to the general population. At a workgroup conducted by the University of Ottawa in 2018, Tirrell met like-minded colleagues for “A Personalized Approach to Mental Health Disorders in First Responders” research. The First Responder Mental Health Network, under the direction of Dr. Simon Hatcher, inspired the group members to work toward mental health goals. The ideas and innovation at these tables within the working group helped found the vision for the Ottawa First Responder Foundation.
Tirrell enlisted Gerry Pingatore, once he retired as Fire Chief, to share Tirrell’s vision for OFRF. From there they recruited a police officer and a paramedic to round out representation on the Board. Lorraine Downey, a well-respected paramedic who started the peer-support line for their department acts as an advisor. Brittany Smith joined the board to pick up the leadership on this project. Steve Bond and Brent McIntyre joined from the police, having experience with city-wide mental health initiatives.
When asked what motivates Brenda and why she cares so much, she says, “I always want to help somebody, I always look to create solutions. If there is a need I want to be able to make a difference. I think it comes from my mother. A caring and loving and supportive person with five children. She was a pioneer, even though she wasn’t using chainsaws on roofs,” Brenda laughs.
Tirrell’s family are very close knit and all rally to support 9runrun on the day of the race. Mom comes from Montreal and her brother Pat comes to help too. Stephanie, her daughter, is up at dawn to set up the kids’ event and Patrick and Matthew, Tirrell’s boys, work logistics. The Stittsville Winers (No ‘H’) also play a big role, this group of ~20 women who help each other set and meet their goals. Stephanie says her mother is always at her best when she’s helping people.
Five years ago when Tirrell was diagnosed with breast cancer, she leaned on her network and made a plan to complete the 70.3 Ironman race. The surgery was in March, she received radiation in April and May, then competed in June. Tirrell recalls, “I didn’t have anyone with me for radiation, I wanted to do that alone. Training for the IronMan with a good coach and my Stitsville Winers (No ‘H’) meant I was never alone in preparation.
It made all the difference in the world! I always knew I was strong, this made me feel stronger. Training and having a goal helped me focus, and training while in treatment was not discouraged by my physicians. This proved to me that there IS a collective power of people. It is always better together.”
As of this February, Tirrell is cancer free for 5 years!
Stephanie, Matthew, and Patrick, Tirrell’s children, and her family may not see Tirrell retire, ever. When fire-suppression is no longer possible, Brenda has the OFRF vision to bring to life and the ever growing momentum of 9runrun.
The Ottawa First Responder Foundation, founded 3 years ago, had to pivot due to COVID when it was suddenly unsafe to bring people into the same room. “The first year we got the Foundation up and running, it took ten years to get to that point and a significant personal investment. A needs assessment and a brick and mortar plan shifted to virtual services, like a roster of clinicians who are able to provide counselling to First Responders within one week of notice, and a spouse support group via zoom. Bringing the Tri-Services together with equitable mental health support is a clear vision, the time to implement the vision and research involved is extensive.”
“Everyone on the Board works full-time in addition to their roles with the Foundation. Due diligence for the roster, for example, is a lot of work requiring: screening criteria, gathering prospective service providers, vet, maintain a database, admin the database and fund disbursements, and review and vet all applications by First Responders. Letters to applicants, letters to resources, allocation of budget, tracking and reporting, all reasonable and time intensive.”
The roster is not strictly clinicians, for example an equine therapy child therapist has been added. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness and other non-medical trauma supports are excellent companions or alternatives to therapy. Spouses of First Responders and their children are a priority too. Zoom groups and education sessions have provided peer and expert support.
Tirrell’s dedication and leadership has been recognized widely, she is a Governor General Sovereign Award Recipient, received the Public Hero Award in 2017, was featured on the Canada 150 People to Watch List, was Firefighter of the year in 2015, and received the Roger Griffiths Citizen of the Year Award in 2010 after 2 previous nominations. Roger Griffiths was a Volunteer Firefighter at Station 81, where Tirrell was stationed, Griffiths’ daughter flew to Ottawa awarding the prize in his honour.
Tirrell will continue to face each challenge before her with an indomitable spirit and a deep desire to contribute to her community. Leading by example for her friends, family, and any Ottawans with the good fortune to know her have a strong courageous example of values in action in Brenda Tirrell.