Dozens of fire chiefs from across the province are gathering in Steinbach this weekend. The annual Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs conference is being jointly hosted by Steinbach and Hanover.

Steinbach Fire Chief Kel Toews says the conference provides opportunity to network with other fire chiefs from across the province. In fact, Toews says one thing he looks forward to most is seeing old friends from throughout Manitoba that he has not seen in a while. 

This year's conference is centered around the theme of mental health. Several speakers on Saturday will speak on this topic. Steinbach MLA Kelvin Goertzen, who attended Friday's opening ceremonies, says he is glad to see that mental health is being emphasized this weekend.

"(Firefighters) spend most of their time thinking about others and the difficulties that others are going through," says Goertzen. "They need to spend a bit more time thinking about themselves and the impact, the mental impact of seeing trauma on a regular basis."

Goertzen says society often talks about those who are losing property in a fire or the victims, yet firefighters are the ones rushing to difficult situations and are taking a lot of that home with them.

"They have to be able to process that and deal with that so that it's not impacting them and their families as well," he adds.

Goertzen says as Minister of Justice, he is fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with heroes, which is the term he uses to describe firefighters and police officers. 

Fire bell and helmets at Friday's ceremony (Shannon Dueck).

Meanwhile, Toews says taking care of mental health has really become a priority in recent years. He notes this is partially due to the extra stress placed on emergency personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"And firefighters, emergency service people are starting to deal with it and learning that it's okay not to be okay and to get help," adds Toews.

Toews says his message to firefighters is to know there are resources available for those struggling with their mental health. He urges them not to bottle it up, but rather to seek help. 

"(If) you as a firefighter recognize a change in a colleague, come forward," he stresses. "Don't try to suppress it."

According to Toews, this year's conference has attracted about 120 delegates to Steinbach. He notes when you include spouses and trade show vendors, there will probably be 250 people converging on Steinbach this weekend. The event will wrap up Saturday with a formal banquet and awards night.