When Fire Chief Geoff Playfair launched a training program at the Whistler Fire Rescue Service in the early '90s to give members the tools to support each other through on-the-job stresses, there was still little widespread understanding of the effects of trauma on first responders.
A quarter-century later, and the tide seems to have turned.
"When I think back on the awareness level, it was so limited in those days," Playfair recalled. "The fact that these issues are being fully discussed and known about in the general population, I think it makes it easier for everybody."
Last week, the province announced proposed changes to B.C.'s labour laws aimed at improving first responders' access to health services and compensation for disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It's a move that first responders, who are four times more likely than the general population to experience major symptoms of one or more mental disorders, have been calling for for some time. According to data from the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 56 first responders committed suicide in Canada last year.
"This is extremely welcome news for paramedics in British Columbia," said Cameron Eby, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC, in a release. "Our team has worked hard to gain this type of support for our members and other allied emergency agencies. We are extremely grateful that our government has recognized the significant mental health challenges faced by paramedics in our province and believe this legislation will provide relief to our front line prehospital medical care professionals."
A major challenge for first responders under the current legislation is having to prove that a mental disorder was caused on the job in order to have treatment covered. Under the NDP's planned changes to the Workers Compensation Act, PTSD and other specific mental disorders would be considered "presumptive conditions" of the job for firefighters, paramedics, correctional officers and police.
"Diagnosing PTSD is not a simple procedure. A lot of the times recognizing this is only the start for some of our guys. Then having to qualify this to (the Workers' Compensation Board), well, this makes it harder for our guys to accept that they may need help," explained Alan MacConnachie, president of the Whistler Fire Fighters IAFF Local 3944.
MacConnachie added that few grasp the nature and frequency of trauma that local firefighters often deal with in a mountain town like Whistler.
"We deal with the darker side of Whistler. When everybody is asleep at night, we're the ones going out there responding to suicides, to body recoveries, to fatal accidents, and that sort of thing," he said. "Over time, that catalogues up and it becomes a stress for a lot of our guys."
Playfair recognized years ago that there was a need for additional support for firefighters dealing with stress caused on the job. Along with its regular coverage through the municipality's employee assistance program, the fire department has also trained several members in critical-incident stress management so they can offer support to their colleagues, training that is covered 50-50 by the union and the RMOW. The department also brings in certified counsellors on an as-needed basis for additional support.
"We're a small department, so we do see a lot," said Darcie Sibbald, one of four Whistler firefighters trained in critical incident peer support. "We can't really put a number on it ... but we've found that, over the last six years, we've really increased the momentum of doing the peer support within our group."