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February 2, 2016
By Laura King


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Feb. 2, 2016, Toronto – There has been a lot of chatter about first-responder mental health since #BellLetsTalk raised more than $6 million last Wednesday: both the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario government have made announcements about partnerships and plans.

Talk is great. Action is better.

Yesterday, in Mississauga, the first group of 20 firefighters and fire officers (career and volunteer) from across Ontario started a week-long train-the-trainer session run by the Mental Health Commission of Canada – the now-familiar and lauded R2MR program, or Road to Mental Readiness.

"It's going to change people's lives," said one student, a longtime volunteer firefighter who has, by times, struggled with anxiety and depression and, therefore, has first-hand perspective.

"Sounds dramatic," she said in an email last night, "but the right tools in the right hands will help so many people. I'm very proud to be part of this."

Already in 2016 four first responders and one member of the military have died by suicide, according to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust website.

In May, members of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs passed a resolution to institute mental-health training and education. In July, the OAFC announced a partnership with the mental-health commission. Training started Monday; the program will immediately roll out to departments across Ontario. The uptake has been overwhelming – there are four chiefs in the course this week, several officers, firefighters and municipal staff. A second course runs next week (I'm sitting in).

Meantime, the CAFC announced last week a separate agreement with the mental-health commission. I wasn't clear on the details from the brief press release but CAFC president Paul Boissonneault clarified in a phone interview that the association will neither develop nor deliver training; rather it will connect interested provincial chiefs' associations or fire departments with the commission.

In addition, CAFC representatives participated last week in a roundtable on PTSD in Regina, organized by Public Safety Canada. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has been tasked by the prime minister to create a national action plan on PTSD – lots more talk.

And, yesterday in Toronto, Labour Minister Kevin Flynn spoke, briefly, at the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) annual health and safety seminar. The OPFFA, which campaigned for the Liberals in the 2014 provincial election, has been instrumental in the government's introduction of presumptive legislation and had hoped the minister would at least allude to the addition of PTSD to the list of illnesses covered. Flynn, instead, focused on prevention, announcing a four-point strategy that, essentially, and interestingly, aligns with the OAFC's position on occupational stress injuries.

Flynn did commit, I'm told, to reviewing the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act once the house resumes sitting (although that bit is not included in the online press release), "to ensure that first responders who become ill from occupational stress injuries have the help, support and treatment they require absent of barriers." I'm not quite clear on that, either.

I wasn't in Toronto for Flynn's announcement but OPFFA president Carmen Santoro said later by email that firefighters recognize the importance of prevention and education, but want more.

"We respect that, but we expect this government to enact legislation to recognize PTSD in first responders and to provide immediate care and help to our members," he said.

So, the CAFC has developed plans and partnerships; the union wants presumptive legislation similar to that in Manitoba and Alberta; the OAFC supports preventative measures rather than compensation, in line with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (because, of course, the municipalities pay for the claims under presumptive legislation, and would have to do so for all first responders, not just firefighters) and has begun training firefighters and officers to teach other firefighters and officers about resilience and mental-health awareness through the R2MR program.

All of this is happening in the context of minimum, standardized requirements for hiring firefighters. That's another blog for another day but, if resilience is the new buzzword then, just like physical testing, there ought to be systems in place to evaluate a potential recruit's ability to cope with the job, and intense training from the get go to build on those skills (another added cost for municipalities).

As for firefighters already in the system – 106,000 of them – most hired or signed on long before #BellLetsTalk or awareness of PTSD, it’s time to take action.

Just down the road from me, in Mississauga's Garry W. Morden Centre, even longtime chief officers who have been there and done that have embraced the training.

"As R2MR spreads across the province, we will develop awareness, resiliency and a culture that supports one another," said one deputy in this week's program, "ending the stigma surrounding mental health."

We're already talking. Let's do this.


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