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Firefighters need more mental health support, says Campbell River fire chief

Campbell River Mirror - 12/15/2018

Campbell River's fire chief says the federal government should provide better mental health support for firefighters and other first responders who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He took that message to Ottawa as part of a delegation of fire chiefs that met with MPs and government officials in the capital last month. One of their key demands was help for first responders whose traumatic experiences frequently drive them to suicide, Doherty said in an interview with the Mirror.

At one point, a group of 16 chiefs sat down to discuss mental illness, and they counted the number of suicides among firefighters from the past year alone that they knew of.

"We came up with 15 suicides this year that we were aware of," Doherty said. "And that doesn't include any of the ones that attempted and survived the ordeal."

Doherty, who represented B.C. fire chiefs during the meetings, said the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) wants to make sure that people at the front lines get access to mental health support.

The CAFC said in a document prepared for MPs that the federal government has recognized that mental health is an issue for first responders. But while longer-term efforts are being put into place, interim measures are needed immediately, the group said. That includes resilience training that is already available to federal employees – but not to firefighters.

The fire chiefs also pressed for a $50-million safety innovation fund that Doherty said would help fire departments to prepare for changes in policy that affect their work, such as a revision in the provincial building code that allows for six-storey wood-frame structures.

"These new codes came into effect, and there's been no research done on it from a fire perspective," Doherty said, adding that fire chiefs are also looking to have more influence on policy-making before changes come into effect.

Other major demands put forward by the CAFC included clarifying procedures for cross-border deployments of heavy urban search and rescue teams.

Those teams of professional first responders – notably one based in Vancouver – are hampered from responding to large-scale emergencies across provincial or international borders by certain regulations, such as a requirement that nurses be licensed in the province where they operate, Doherty said.

The CAFC also wants the federal government to reinstate a program that used to help fire departments purchase equipment. Doherty said the program was dissolved for lack of use, and that it involved a process that he described as cumbersome.

Small rural volunteer fire departments in particular need help in paying for equipment, he said. Tools for decontaminating firefighting gear is especially important, he said, citing high rates of cancer among firefighters.

A fifth demand put forward by the CAFC is an advisory secretariat that would serve as the interface between fire departments across the country and the various agencies of government that need their support, he said.

Doherty met with a number of elected officials and senior government figures during the Ottawa visit, including North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney and Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan, among others.

Campbell River's fire chief, who is also a director with Fire Chiefs' Association of BC representing Vancouver Island, said the delegation was well-received, although it didn't manage to extract firm commitments from the federal government.

The lobbying initiative, called Fire Chiefs on the Hill, brought 25 fire chiefs from across the country to the capital, where they held some 80 meetings on Nov. 26-27, Doherty said.