Spotlight: Arjuna George, Fire Chief (ret.)

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: This month, our Spotlight is on Arjuna George, recently retired fire chief from Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada, and principal owner of Silver Arrow Coaching and Consulting and TREFIRE (T.R.E. Fire). We’ll talk about all that later. Arjuna spent almost twenty five years in the fire service. He now gives back as a coach to help first responders master stress and become more resilient. He’s also written a book, Burnt Around the Edges, which details his experiences in the fire world and with occupational burnout. We’ll talk about a little of everything today. He’s got a lot to bring to the table, so let’s start.

Arjuna, thank you for joining me. How are you?

Arjuna: I’m fantastic. Doing good.

Caroline: Let’s start with your experience as a firefighter. Take us through that journey briefly.

Arjuna: I joined in 1997 as a volunteer firefighter. When I joined I was kind of apprehensive because I had two young babies at home. So, I was apprehensive to jump in and take that leap while the kids were young, but I did and I’m forever grateful for sure. Big struggle to manage that as well as two young kids at home. I was working shift work at the time. I was a baker, so I was finishing work at 8 o’clock in the morning and taking over my son in the parking lot. And I went home and tried to stay awake for another eight hours.

Caroline: That’s a lot of hours.

Arjuna: Yes. So, that was fun and interesting. And then my goal was just to become the best volunteer firefighter. And it wasn’t to be the best, but it was to be knowledgeable so that I could go home to my family. I had no intentions of becoming a firefighter as a career. I wanted to start a restaurant. That’s what my goal was. It was to have a restaurant and become a chef. Then things just kind of snowballed. I kind of got the fire bug as they say and I took every course under the son. Four years later, I landed my first firefighter career job at Salt Spring Fire.

So, there were three management jobs at the time. There was a chief, assistant chief, and a deputy chief and the rest were all volunteers, but I was the first paid firefighter. That was in 2001. Same year as September 11th, 2001. That was quite the eye-opening experience to join the fire service in 2001 as a career member going to work every day.

I moved up the ranks fairly fast as well. Once again, I was a go-getter. I wasn’t to learn everything I possibly could. So, I went from there to become a captain and a training officer. That was probably the most enjoyable time of my career. There was so much action and creativity coming up with different lesson plans, props and everything. That was definitely a highlight. Then I went from training officer captain to assistant fire chief and then deputy fire chief. That’s when I left the union. So, I was in the union up until deputy fire chief. I did that for a number of year then I finished off as the fire chief for about five years in that position.

I left last November 2021 after recovering from burnout, organizational burnout. There’s lots of factors that went into that. My book goes into all the details but there’s a couple things that I think really led to that burnout. There’s emotional drainage. I was at capacity. I just could not take anything more in life; It was coming to a head. There was a bit of moral injury. At the time, I had no idea what moral injury was. But now, looking back, I definitely suffered from some moral injury in the fire chief role and just being overwhelmed with work and not having the resources to support me. It was a bit of a struggle for sure. I’m still recovering from my nervous system being fried as I describe it, just beyond capacity and unable to do anything more.

Right now, I feel pretty vigorous, but I’m still working every single day on my own mental health and making sure that my nervous system has regulation and balance. I might appear to be taking on a lot of stuff but I also have a lot of down time, a lot of family time.

Caroline: That’s good.

Arjuna: Yeah, it’s turning out to be a good balance.

Caroline: You learn over time, as a lot of us come to the flip side, that there are some coping strategies that are not so healthy and some coping strategies that are obviously helping us to live a lot better. I know that you went to coaching at one point, which is obviously a big part of where you are and where you’re going now. Talk about how you kind of got into that and how that turned you around.

Arjuna: I had done coaching previously as a fire chief but only occasionally when there was more like a challenge to go through. It wasn’t a regular basis; I didn’t have a coach on speed dial. It was June 2020 that I finished work. Essentially, I wanted to try any avenue, any modality that would help me recover. I know quite a few coaches personally, one who just went through the program I did, just prior to me going off work. So, pretty fresh. I connected with them just to kind of see what it was all about.

One who was local who I knew, she’s a social worker, so also a counselor and a coach. When we sat down, she really brought to light my future. She brought it out of me to ask if the fire service was healthy to go back to. Is this something that I want to do? Is there a way to go back healthy? Are there ways to go back that I’ll have more balance in my life?

It allowed me to kind of process that where I probably couldn’t have processed that myself. That’s huge. So, just seeing the change in myself over two years was like a light bulb. If coaching can help me, who I thought was pretty introspective and in tune with what was going on in my own mind – I found out I really wasn’t 100% in tune because I really didn’t know what my future would bring after fire. After fire and any other emergency services where we kind of live and breathe – police, fire, ambulance – that job, to leave that identity is a bit of a struggle for some.

For me, I think coaching allowed me to leave that identity intact and with no resentment. I think I could have stayed for another week, two weeks, months, and been resentful of the fire service and wanted nothing to do with it after the fact. I feel now that I still love the fire service, I still love what it represents, and who we are, I still call it “we” and “us” so I still have a connection to it. Coaching just allowed me to put that aside and figure out what was next and the healthiest thing for me to do in life which is something a little bit more balanced and met my passion in life.

Caroline: Balance coaching is one of the topics we’ve talked about at FRC and throughout our coaching classes. I’m sure you did more techniques besides balance coaching, but since you mentioned balance coaching or balance, it’s one of the things we often talk about in terms of finding balance in your life. Especially those who suffer occupational burnout, that is one of the avenues a coach may try to go. When you’re overwhelmed with work, especially for first responders as it’s their identity, it’s really hard to see outside of those walls. It’s important to find that balance and remember that there’s more than just your job as your identity. You found that.

Arjuna: Yes, I look at balance as… I call it harmony which is very similar. Balance usually means you’re going to weigh two things and they’re going to balance. But for me, harmony is the same type of concept but work’s going to take a bit more sometimes and be a bit heavier, but sometimes family life or your hobbies will take more weight. Very seldom do they have total balance, an equal fifty-fifty. So as long as we go back and forth, we don’t always stay in work mode, then we’re in harmony.

Caroline: Yes! Balance does not mean equal. It doesn’t have to be the same. It just has to be enough. Now you went to Royal Roads University to train as an executive coach. Tell us about that journey. What was that like? How’d you find out about it or get into it?

Arjuna: It’s recognized in Canada as one of the top coaching schools, so that was one reason. Both of my coaches actually went through the same program. So, when I was talking with them, they had nothing but rave reviews about the school. So, that was pretty good. I was looking at [other] options at the time; there were a few schools that weren’t nearly as recognized in the community. As a person going from the fire service into coaching, I want something kind of recognizable. Royal Roads is recognized as one of top schools in Canada and North America.

It took me two years to get into it. It was a bit of a journey since it’s in such high demand. There’s people all across the world in the program so that’s interesting as well. It was kind of fun to participate with people in different countries.

Caroline: That’s a great experience.

Arjuna: There’s almost fifty in our class and the cohort was all done online. It went super, super smooth. It was nine months. Pretty intense work. What I found the most beneficial was that I coached many people but I got coached over so many hours when I went through the program. That allowed me, through my recovery of stress and burnout, starting my own business, writing a book…

There were so many golden opportunities that got through being a student by getting coached by other students and faculty. The amount of introspection that we had to do to figure out who we are, what our values are, was precious. It’s hands-down the best program I’ve ever taken in my life. I’ve taken a lot of school through fire service and stuff like that. It gave me time and was maybe the best program because I needed it at that time. The amount of time that I reflected on who I am as a person… precious.

Caroline: Yes, when I went through my coaches classes that was probably the best part about it, the coaching that you get in turn. And you start to think about all things like, “I thought I had thought about these things or reflected on these things before but maybe not…?” When you have someone else helping you ride that thought train, it’s definitely bigger.

Arjuna: And when there’s a deadline or something, there’s purpose behind it. Sometimes, I get to sit on the couch and think about life or whatever, but when you’re purposefully thinking about it, it’s a whole different ball game.

Caroline: It has structure.

Arjuna: Exactly.

Caroline: So, through all of that, then you moved to creating Silver Arrow Coaching and Consulting. Talk to us about that.

Arjuna: Silver Arrow Coaching. Kind of my niche that I wanted to go into was coaching fire chiefs across Canada. For myself I really found there’s a gap personally for support as a fire chief in decision-making, in just getting stuff off your chest… There’s so many avenues. I feel fire chiefs and chief officers are working in silos and they really don’t have the opportunity to have a safe, confidential conversation with somebody who’s not involved with their organization at all. I really felt that was missing.

So, when I launched Silver Arrow, my goal was to support fire officers across Canada to become more resilient and to master stress. Those two avenues were kind of personal to me, so I thought I might as well share everything I’ve known with other fire chiefs. That’s been going well, just about a year in operation.

My name, Arjuna, in Sanskrit means “silver” or “bright.” So, “silver” kind of represents my name. And then “arrow.” Arjuna in the book, Bhagavadgita, which is an ancient [Hindu] scripture, was an archer. His main thing, he was a warrior, a chariot driver, but his main thing was that he was an archer. So, I thought that it’s pretty cool that “silver” and “arrow” kind of represents my name. Also, “arrow” to me also represents moving people forward in a direction. So, that visual of propelling people to a new future, new vision, forward in life kind of sat with me.

Caroline: I love it.

Arjuna: It’s kind of a hidden name. “Silver Arrow, what does that mean?” It’s not evident so it’s fun to describe it to people. And consulting is part of it as well. But really the coaching is where my heart sits for sure, helping and supporting fire chiefs.

At the same time, I launched TREFIRE which is Tension, Trauma Release Exercises. So, it’s a process of seven exercises that people go through. They release tension, pent up trauma, stored emotions within their body through what’s called a neurogenic tremor. A neurogenic tremor is your nervous system essentially releasing tension and allowing your body to naturally shake.

The process is when you do these exercises, you lay on the floor and you’ll actually start to shake out your tension and trauma from your body. All can happen within an hour. Once you learn how to do it with a certified provider, such as myself, you can do it on your own, which is pretty awesome. It’s a self-care tool that, once you know how to do it, you can do it on your own without having to pay for continual service on it.

Caroline: That’s awesome.

Arjuna: Both of those were an effort to support fire chiefs, firefighters and police, ambulance, whoever, to help regulate their nervous systems better.

Caroline: You’re hitting all kinds of care that isn’t addressed enough recently. And you’re getting it from all different angles. You’re getting the physicality of it and the support. Of course, we talk about coaching and the benefits here all the time. So, that’s great. You’ve definitely built a lot around your experiences and come through quite the journey. You started as a baker and you wanted to create a restaurant, and here you are with your coaching business and TREFIRE, things that you never thought you would do.

Last month, we talked to Jen and how she didn’t know where her journey was going to take her. Coaching has been pivotal for both of you.

Arjuna: I truly think that coaching is a game-changer for people. Honestly, there’s so many things that coaches can bring out of you that will have a clearer picture of what you want in life. It helped me and obviously it helped Jennifer and many others.

Caroline: I’ve only ever heard good things when people have a coach. Now, you have multiple coaches?

Arjuna: Yes, I have three right now. One’s not in action right now. I had a book-writing coach, I have a coach-coach, and I have a career coach. Through school, we still meet. We do monthly peer coaching together to get our hours up and stay present and up to speed.

Caroline: That’s great.

Arjuna: There’s coaches for so many different things. It was ingrained in us in school. If you’re a coach and you don’t have a coach… Well, it was essentially said that you should avoid any coaches that don’t have a coach.

Caroline: We do have two meetings a week for our coaches and we have a coaching session at the end of each one so we stand by that as well. If you’re coaching, you should also be coached. That’s definitely good practice. You don’t hear about doctors not having their own doctors. It’s important.

So, let’s talk about your book, Burnt Around the Edges. When did that come out?

Arjuna: October 31st, Halloween day. It was a two-year work in progress. I started it thanks to that coach I referred to earlier.

We were sitting on the deck and going through, “Is it going to work for me to go back to work or what can I do next?” One of the questions she asked was, “What’s something you’ve always wanted to do and you’ve just never done it?” And the first thing that popped into my head of course because I love reading and do a lot of writing was, “I would love to write a book.”

She asked some other questions and basically it was, “So, what’s stopping you? Why are you not writing that book?” I said, “Well, maybe ten or twenty years from now I’ll probably get to it. Nothing’s going to happen today.” Then she challenged again to kind of dig a little deeper as coaches do and that day I started writing the book. All thanks to her.

So, I pretty much owe Burnt Around the Edges’s creation to her coaching me through it and making me realize that today is the day to start writing that story. Once again, the power of coaching got me to become an author which is pretty amazing.

Caroline: Yes it is! I think it’s done well, hasn’t it? So far?

Arjuna: It has, definitely. It’s going really well. Great feedback. The theme if I could summarize the theme coming back from them is, “You wrote a book that sounds just like my life.” That’s pretty powerful when I can write a book about my journey that is almost exactly the same as somebody else’s. They said they’ve never seen that in writing.

PTSD, traumatic stress, there’s a lot of workshops on that which is incredibly important. But there’s also a missing component of that which is the organization stress which I think not a lot of people talk about. They might say, “Oh, I’m stressed at work.” That’s kind of the end of it; there’s no strategies on how to handle that. Also, as a male fire chief, not too many people talk about emotions or that kind of stuff either. There’s a lot of people who say, “Thank God you said that.”

Caroline: It’s like the elephant in the room. 

Arjuna: Exactly.

Caroline: Everyone has stress, occupational stress, occupational burnout, and no one wants to talk about it especially in a leadership position. 

Arjuna: Most definitely.

Caroline: Not only are you a first responder and you’re supposedly able to handle that, but you’re chief and you should really be able to handle it. It shouldn’t bother you; you should know what to do. I think that’s incredibly important and I think that’s awesome that you have your book because it does need to be out there. People need to see it. It needs to be called out.

Arjuna: And I think people need to be alright with that. I think a fire chief should be able to have a “down” day, a day that’s not perfect, right? I felt like every single day I had to walk in with a happy face, zero stress in my life because I’ve got it all under control. But having that mask on, that facade, is pretty tiring. You can only do that for so many years.

Caroline: Yup, for sure. So what does your balance look like these days?

Arjuna: Pretty good. Maybe a little too lopsided on the “me” time. I feel a little guilty sometimes that I have more “me” time than I’ve ever had before. But I know that I’m still recovering honestly, so, I’m not fully back to normal. Whatever normal is.

But I definitely feel I have more boundaries in my life which I think was missing in my previous career. I don’t usually schedule any meetings or coaching before 9am. At 5 o’clock, I close my laptop. I’m done for the day unless there’s an important meeting or something that has to happen that night. I used to work through the night, on weekends, take holidays to work on operational guidelines. I had no boundaries.

That was my life; if it needs to get done, I’d do it. Looking back on it now, I feel much more whole having those boundaries in place. I think that’s pretty critical for people to maintain a healthy life, they need boundaries in place between family time and work and whatever. I’m a hard worker, so in the times I schedule work, I’ll work and I’ll do a lot, probably even more than working around the clock. Then, I wasn’t as productive.

Caroline: When you empty the tank, it’s a lot harder to work.

Arjuna: Yeah, so balance is pretty good. I’m trying to maintain my physical fitness, go for hikes with the dog every day, try to get reading in, writing in. I’m trying to get more creative stuff in my life, which especially as a fire chief I wasn’t able to do. Not necessarily art, but creative ideas like writing, social media, videos…

Caroline: Are you back to baking?

Arjuna: No, actually, I found out through my whole process that gluten was one of my enemies. I’m definitely gluten sensitive so I don’t bake anymore.

Caroline: I have a similar issue. We have to make some sacrifices here and there to take better care of ourselves.

Arjuna: Yes, there’s so many changes from supplements, water intake… I was definitely dehydrated. Most first responders are living off caffeine and coffee. So, there’s so many different things, nutrition, strategies… Chapter ten in my book is called First Responder Toolbox and it’s basically a catalog of everything I tried in my two years of recovery from acupuncture to massage to T.R.E. to nutrition, everything.

Caroline: Well, it sounds like you have found some fantastic paths for yourself. You’re putting it out there for others and that’s great. Everyone, can check out Silver Arrow Coaching and TREFIRE and go get Burnt Around the Edges. Go learn all kinds of things from Arjuna.

Arjuna: I appreciate it, yes, thank you. My coaching practice is in Canada, but being an FRC coach allows me to help and support United States first responders as well. It’s a nice balance that I can concentrate in Canada but also service the US as well. 

Caroline: Yup, we’re making lots and lots of connections. It’s fantastic. Arjuna, thank you so much for joining me on this Spotlight. We appreciate all the work that you’re doing.

Arjuna: I appreciate all of you too.

Caroline: Folks, plenty of links above to see what Arjuna is up to, grab his book, and check out all he has in there. Occupational burnout can be gradual but painful. Don’t let it hold you down. Reach out and find out what you can do to find better harmony in your career and in your life.