First to arrive, last to be seen

Tow operators race to accident scenes for a living and witness traumatic events as a result. Photo credit: Taylor Gilbert

Everyone remembers their first time.

“He was leaning over the passenger seat gargling. He had one of these skull fractures that apparently when you get one of these fractures you don’t make it,” said Myles Sherren who recalled the accident scene in gruesome detail. “For a first wreck, to see that was just like…you know…I didn’t go home that night.”

Instead he stayed in his truck.

You often see them sitting on the shoulders of on and off ramps to highways or parked egregiously at your local Timmies.

It is this type of strategic placement that allows them to be “first on scene” to a fender-bender, a collision, a wreck, and sometimes a fatality.

It’s how they make their living.

Tow truck operators often arrive at the scene of an accident before traditional first responders, yet unlike police, fire fighters and paramedics, they do not share the same benefits or access to resources available to help them deal with traumatic events.

Tow operators in Ontario are not recognized as first responders under the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act (Bill 163). Bill 163 was an amendment to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (1997) which makes it easier for first responders to receive benefits if they suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of their job.

Dr. Leah Hartman specializes in trauma, PTSD, operational stress injuries, depression and anxiety, compassion fatigue, and grief and bereavement.
Dr. Leah Hartman specializes in trauma, PTSD, operational stress injuries, depression and anxiety, compassion fatigue, and grief and bereavement. Photo credit: Dr. Leah Hartman

According to Dr. Leah Hartman, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Centre for Trauma Recovery and Growth, PTSD symptoms may include intrusive or unwanted stressing memories of the event, flashbacks or reliving the event as if it was happening again, upsetting dreams or nightmares of the event, or severe emotional distress resulting in physical reactions when something reminds the person of the trauma. She called these, “intrusive events.”

Hartman said traumatic events can lead to a change in a person’s thinking and mood. They may experience more negative thoughts about themselves, or other people, or the world. This can lead one to begin cutting off from people, withdrawing, and feeling distant and hopeless.

While there are many studies that look into the effects traumatic events have on first responders, the same cannot be said about the effects these similar events have on those in the towing industry. Due to the lack of research, it appears there is not much in the form of strategy or internal support to help male and female tow truck drivers who experience PTSD symptoms.

Abrams Towing provides regular and flatbed towing across Southern Ontario.
Abrams Towing provides regular and flatbed towing across Southern Ontario. Photo credit: Joey Gagne

“I think anybody that says, within our industry, that they have a protocol specifically for PTSD would say, that they don’t. There’s no protocol,” said Joey Gagne, owner and president of Abrams Towing services. “I don’t see a lot of people approaching their employer. If somebody does say ‘I need time off’ then obviously our first instinct is to give them the time, and to encourage them to seek medical attention.”

Sherren, who is not affiliated with Abrams towing, said, “Towing is commission work, so even if you take that day off, you don’t get paid. There’s no salary, nor is it an hourly wage.” This means sick days don’t come cheap for a tow operator.

In 2014, the Towing and Storage Advisory group presented a report and recommendations to the Ministry of Consumer Services. In the report they cited high turnover rates among tow operators as an industry issue.

It remains an issue today.

Sherren has been working as a tow operator for nearly a decade and said, “The hardest thing for a towing company is finding a reliable driver.”

“Towing is not for the faint of heart at the best of times, it’s a tough job. It’s typically very labour intensive and very time consuming. A lot of on-call services, so a lot of guys work days and nights. There is a significant turnover, so that turnover could partially be related to PTSD type situations,” said Gagne, speaking from his 40 years of experience in the business.

With the high turnover rate in mind, what can be done to help potential drivers be more prepared for the job?

Hartman, who has plenty of experience working with first responders, suggests peer support programs, similar to those used by first responders, are a great way to connect with somebody who does the job, who ‘gets it’, and who could share lived experiences.

Toronto police have a program called Beyond the Blue which serves officers and their families. It strives to promote awareness of officers worth, while building an understanding of the job they do.

Hartman said more and more there are programs in place to help first responders be prepared for the events they will inevitably witness.

“When I see some first responders applying, for some of those jobs there’s psychological assessments,” said Hartman. “Even from that point we are trying to encourage individuals considering going into this field to be proactive about their mental health. Not just waiting or reaching out for help when there are indicators of mental health issues.”

She spoke about a program called the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) which exists to build awareness of mental illness and operational stress injuries through education, in order to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and to increase understanding and support for these conditions.

However, this particular program is catered to members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and is only available through certain organizations (CAF, Police).

Gagne, operator of the biggest fleet of tow trucks in the Greater Toronto Area, said there is a lot of training to become a tow operator, but that it does not “necessarily include trauma or mental health related issues.”

As far as preparing drivers for traumatic events they may witness, Gagne said, “I don’t think anybody’s doing anything, personally. I think mostly it’s one off—your employer or your co-worker will prepare you by giving you the knowledge and experience of what the job can entail, but is anybody specifically dealing with mental health? I doubt there’s very little of that out there.”

Gagne said he is not aware of a lot of drivers who are displaying PTSD symptoms due to a traumatic event they witnessed while on the job.

“Some guys do get bothered by that, but typically they turn away really quickly and then there’s other guys that are just used to it, and they just deal with it. So, I think it’s pretty much the same in any kind of PTSD or mental trauma situation, everybody copes with it differently.”

Gagne said if a driver did display symptoms, he and others he knows within the industry would not only encourage them to get treatment but also offer support.

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, first responders such as paramedics, police and firefighters, are at a greater risk for PTSD, which is a high-risk factor for subsequent suicidal behaviour.

While tow operators may not witness the same level of trauma as traditional first responders, these men and women sometimes witness equally tragic life altering events.

Myles Sherren on his way to the impound lot with a wrecked vehicle.
Myles Sherren on his way to the impound lot after hooking up a wrecked vehicle. Photo credit: Taylor Gilbert

“There’s a lot more tow trucks out there than fire trucks,” said Sherren, sitting in his truck enjoying his coffee and donut preparing to work through the night, “We’re sitting on every entrance…every off-ramp, on-ramp, busy intersection, there’s a tow truck sitting there.”

With a total of 33,137 fatal and personal injury collisions in Ontario in 2019, the odds are it’s not a matter of if a tow operator will experience a traumatic event but when.

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