Canada's giant step in firefighter suicide prevention

Holding public and private entities responsible for PTSD is a major step toward preventing it

In October, I floated a theory on what it will take to make a significant dent in the number of firefighters who take their own lives. This came on the heels of two firefighter suicides.

Basically, I argued that firefighter suicides are the result of job-related post-traumatic stress disorder and that they should be officially classified as line-of-duty deaths. The notion is that once agencies have a financial stake in the outcome, they will more strongly commit to preventing that outcome.

So I’m incredibly encouraged by, what I believe to be, a landmark decision that came out of Vancouver, British Columbia to award the widow of a firefighter line-of-duty-death benefits. This decision came almost two years after Ernie Dombrowski took his life following a two-year struggle with PTSD.

Firefighter Dombrowski was on scene at a 2013 hit-and-run incident where he came upon a fatality left on the side of the road. Those who were close to him say that image haunted him the rest of his life.

Gena Dombrowski said her husband felt there wasn’t enough he could do to make lives better. Her husband also believed his mental health problems were a weakness and didn’t want to be labeled as having PTSD. Hence, he was never officially diagnosed.

And that’s one of the more profound aspects of this story. As we know from the countless firefighters with cancer who have battled for benefits, the sticking point is making a direct connection between the illness and the occupation.

And that’s a whole lot harder when it comes to mental illness.

It took WorkSafe B.C., the provincial board that decides workplace benefits claims, nine months to reach its decision to award Gena Dombrowski benefits. They relied on testimony from one psychologist who’d seen him and a letter from one firefighter who worked with him.

That’s not overwhelming evidence. Despite that, Gena Dombrowski was awarded $3,000 per month, their son will qualify for free college tuition from the fire union and Ernie’s name will be added to the LODD memorial.

One Canadian lawmaker is pushing a bill that would make PTSD a presumptive illness for first responders. He’s been unsuccessful in getting such a bill passed once before.

I believe individuals are inherently good and will help others when the need arises. The growth of crowd-funding services like GoFundMe is evidence of that. And frankly, if I’m wrong on that, I don’t want to know.

Institutions, on the other hand, can and do turn their backs on people in need. The pressures on public and private institutions can overshadow their individuals’ desire to help. Because of that, we need rules that guide institutional behavior in given situations.

WorkSafe B.C. made the right moral call. But it is easy to see how this case could have gone the other way.

The test for first responders in Canada will be to see if the Dombrowski case is treated as a precedent or as a one-off.

If we’re going to get a handle on firefighter suicides, the Dombrowski case needs to be precedent setting not just in British Columbia, Canada, or the United States. Firefighter PTSD is universal, and it must be universally recognized as an occupational hazard.

That recognition has to be written into law.

Once private and public entities are on the financial hook for benefits to survivors like Gena Dombrowski, they will allocate more energy and resources to prevent making those payouts — addressing mental health problems while they are still preventable and curable.

The path to preventing firefighter suicide and improving firefighter mental health is uphill. The actions by WorkSafe B.C. may prove significant in flattening that steep grade. 

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