Last week (March 3, 2015), we lost a Surrey Fire Fighter with nearly 20 years of experience. Kevin was dedicated to the Fire Service, to the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund, and to the Fire Fighters’ Association in Surrey. Kevin’s story is similar to other First Responders who suffered from mental health issues. The Vancouver Sun published an article (March 7, 2015) that spoke to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the First Responder community.
(Unfortunately, that online article has been removed by the Vancouver Sun.)
In Kevin’s case, a string of emergency response events starting in 2005, led to his diagnosis of PTSD in 2010. There was a claim for benefits to WorkSafeBC (WSBC) that was accepted by the Board. From the time he was recognized by WSBC for his PTSD (that is occupationally linked to Kevin), to his last days on earth, there weren’t any WSBC policies or mechanisms in place, to follow-up with Kevin’s mental health challenges.
The loss of Kevin has raised many mental health based questions which all lead to a continuum of care that is not offered to workers who have had successful WSBC claims for mental health conditions. The Surrey Fire Fighters’ Association decided to use the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Association (BCPFFA) Legislative Conference (March 9 and 10) to bring Kevin’s story forward. This conference was combined with the BC Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial, where those that passed away, due to occupational causes, are recognized as Line of Duty Deaths (LODD). Firefighters from all regions across BC were in attendance to recognize the addition of 13 firefighters to the Firefighter Memorial.
Vice President Dave Burns made an unscheduled appearance at the educational portion of the conference to tell Kevin’s story. At that time, VP Burns asked the delegation to share Kevin’s story while they were meeting with their MLAs. Kevin’s story grabbed the hearts of all there, and everyone was in agreement that something needs to be done to prevent another First Responder from harming themselves.
Kevin’s story can be paired down to a few simple facts. Kevin’s string of emergency response events began in 2005, which played a significant part in his PTSD diagnosis. These emergency events were occupationally-related and accepted by WSBC. After discharge from his mental health practitioner, there was no mechanism or policies in place by WSBC to follow-up on Kevin’s mental health status. Ultimately, Kevin’s PTSD condition played a role in his passing last week.
In his address to the BCPFFA delegation, VP Burns provided a possible solution for consideration. By way of analogy, when you go to a dentist, they always make sure you are contacted for follow-up. In the world of First Responders, who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as PTSD or Major Depression, First Responders are left to fend for themselves after they are discharged by a mental health professional. WSBC should consult with the mental health community of practitioners, to come up with a set of criteria for post discharge oversight.
A post discharge policy could be as simple as a follow-up schedule for those who have had a diagnosis of PTSD, Major Depression, or other recognized emergency service-related mental health condition. The follow-up interval could have less frequency over time. An example could be follow-up after discharge of every 3 months for a while, then 6 month intervals, move to annual, every 3 years and so on. The policy makers can consult with the mental health professionals to come up with the format to follow-up with these struggling First Responders.
As a former firefighter and a member of group peer defusers who were regularly used to talk firefighters through difficult incidents, I can assure everyone that not all firefighters react the same to similar incidents. The saying goes, “an abnormal reaction to a set of abnormal events is normal.” What the saying doesn’t cover is that each person reacts and recovers differently and each individual will recover and react at different speeds.
As a Critical Incident Scene Management peer defuser, I spoke with six firefighters in BC who had been formally diagnosed with PTSD. Now there are five. What I can tell you is ALL of these First Responders had been with me some time after their diagnosis, and the conversations always led to tearful conversations. These people have been affected by what they saw, smelled, heard, felt and did, while at work performing their duties. It’s time for the organization that is responsible for protecting BC workers to look at this in greater detail. WSBC made some progressive changes to the Act on July 1 2012. They created criteria for mental health practitioners to use, and created a better understanding of how First Responders are affected by what they are exposed to. No longer could First Responders be expected to be “tough enough” to deal with any incident, just because they were First Responders.
What needs to be done TODAY, is for WSBC to develop a policy, with mental health professionals, to deal with post discharge patients. We need to do this before another wife, child and friend has to endure this type of tragedy. My heartfelt condolences go to Kevin’s family. I hope someday, they will better understand that Kevin’s work-related mental health conditions, were likely contributing factors in his passing. I hope Kevin’s story will positively impact another First Responder, and produce changes to WSBC policy to better follow-up with First Responders with accepted mental health claims.