Interview – William Cannata talks about autism awareness training for firefighters

Fredericton Fire (2)Fredericton, Canada – At the beginning of July we reported on the Fredericton Fire department, who are the first Canadian fire department to take autism awareness training. The training, Autism Awareness  First Responder- Fire/Rescue, is taught by retired Boston firefighter, Bill Cannata, who was  Captain of the Westwood Fire Department. Tofday Mr Cannata is the Coordinator of the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition ,(ALEC). The report can be read here: Canadian firefighters take autism awareness training.

This workshop that Mr Cannata runs provides the opportunity to give first responders an overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), growth rates, theories, common characteristics, effective communication methods, behavioral symptoms, sensory issues, and some practical skills on how to effectively interact and respond to an emergency involving a person with ASD.

The objectives of the training are to:

  • To prepare fire and rescue personnel for a response to an emergency involving a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
  • How to identify characteristics and behaviors of a person with ASD.
  • How to effectively communicate with a person with ASD.
  • Discuss special tactics, rescue techniques, and patient care.
  • How to build relationships with the ASD community.

I wanted to learn more about the training that Firefighters receive in regards to autism awareness and I contacted Mr Cannata. He kindly agreed to answer my questions via email.

Below is my interview with Mr Cannata.



Can you tell me a little about your personal experiences with autism.

I have a 24 year old son with autism. His name is Ted. He was diagnosed at 13 months old. I feel he has taught me about people with ASD and I need to share this information with my peers in the emergency services so they will better understand Ted and other people with Autism.

Have you dealt with many autistic individuals in a fire emergency? How did you approach these individuals?

I have only had calls for service on the medical side and wandering related calls. Many first responders that we have trained have had contact with people with Autism in emergencies. My approach and the approach that we teach is to quiet the scene down, deescalate the person with ASD if you need to by giving them space and help them work through this. Be prepared for delayed responses because of slower processing for some individuals with ASD.

How did you develop the autism training program? When did it start?

In 2003, The Arc of South Norfolk in Massachusetts held a training session for first responders. The Arc was seeing contact with first responders and people with ASD were not going well and in some cases with fatal results. A group of parents that were first responders including myself, attended a training about how to interact with people with Autism. This was a law enforcement training. From this, I developed a training for firefighters and emergency medical services. What I did was take my experience as a career firefighter and my experiences with my son Ted and if he was in an emergency, how he would react to the situation. In 2004, The Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition (ALEC)was formed to train first responders in South Norfolk County Massachusetts.