Amber Russell has been married to a member of Ottawa Police Service (OPS) for over 10 years after dating for 14, and they have two children, ages 4 and 7. “Everyday you never know how it will go, from schedule changes to difficult situations, at the end of the day home MUST be a safe and loving place.”

“Our whole family knows the sound of velcro. That is the sound that says, ’He is home and he is safe’ to our family. He needs a healthy home not to be distracted on the job. The kids know to say hi but give him a few minutes. Adrenaline and cortisol may have been firing all day and he knows at home that a state of alertness or readiness is not needed anymore. The kids love to see him home. We just don’t know what the day was like, so we give space.”

Russell volunteers time as a board member of  Ottawa First Responder Foundation (OFRF). She and her friend Sarah are working on the spouse program with the vision of “building a community of spousal support for tri-service members”. Russell says her work is all about the spouses. “We are the first eyes. Home is where the first signs start to show of Operational Stress Injury (OSI) or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Knowing how to identify these signs and having services in place that are non-stigmatic and trustworthy are important. Our vision is to take a proactive approach.”

Russell and her friend Sarah want to develop a network for daily support and help with big issues. “Relationships with first responders—from dating, marriage, or parenting—have many differences to other families and couples. At times, platoon mates die and die by suicide. We are the first ones to see impacts like PTSD or OSI and can be an early detection support. When things happen to members that are permanent, lethal, or cause illness we want the OFRF to be there to fill gaps in support for all first-responders. Our goal with this program is to build first responder family resilience.”

“The tri-service is called to big disasters—like the Westboro bus crash—and at the end of the day they all go home. As a spouse, this impacts you and you have a role to play. So the support network can be there for spouses to support each other in this work. We are also there for the good stuff: BBQ’s, celebrations, and holiday events.”

“There are very common contexts we share, from the every day to missing an anniversary or birthday due to work, the spouse group is an outlet. I have two children who are VERY proud of their Daddy. It is very helpful to hear from other spouses about how to help them understand why Daddy is missing in key moments or responding to other kids in the playground saying, “police are bad”, or even answering the question “Why are there bad guys?”.

Spouses who have had unimaginable or difficult experiences share their first-hand experiences. Others can turn to people with experience in order to learn or understand more, and receive support from spouses in similar contexts. 

Amber supports her husband but also has feelings about what she is going through…and she is not alone. Through the monthly spouses group and skill-building sessions, she has created a network for herself too. 

Breaking down barriers and stigma is essential. Getting help, or struggling to cope is not a failure, it is natural and there is a family of support, we like to say “no one stands alone”.

“We do skill-building around breaking down barriers or stigma related to mental health, talk about and dealing with emotions, clinicians give webinars and guest speakers share first-hand perspectives we can all grow from. Parents whose children are out of the house offer peer support, sharing tools and approaches that helped them. Divorce and separation rates for first responders are VERY HIGH.

Over time we aim to grow into peer support for single folks as well and set up a buddy system. One step at a time we are building.”

Tri-service support helps provide equitable mental health resources that are anonymous. Each service has different entitlements and are sourced from their employer. It is helpful to have an organization committed to the well-being of first responders that isn’t connected to their employment. It is also possible to speak with people not connected to your work team. 

“Someday I dream of us hosting a retreat for first responder couples where there are breakouts and skill-building for families and chosen families. It can be helpful to be around people who are going through what you are…skills for coping, etc.”

“Without Ottawa First Responders Foundation, we will see a decline in first responder mental health. A separate organization serves as an outlet aside from one’s employer that can be anonymous and confidential. We want first responders to know help is always here for you and your family.”

“We can be part of the chosen family for those who do not have people at home.”

“Everyone LOVES firefighters and thinks paramedics are amazing! Police get a rough bias. These are human beings putting themselves at risk for the benefit of the community. Police are neighbours, friends, and family—a vital part of the fabric of our community. Police are facing serious pressure and need to know they are supported too.”

OFRF staff and board truly care about the longevity of first responders and their well-being. Register to run or walk in support of Ottawa’s first responders at 9runrun 2022!