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Firefighters raise calls for help with PTSD

A Dawson City firefighter diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder says the challenge he faced getting treatment covered shows the need for more provinces and territories to follow Alberta’s lead in recognizing PTSD as a hazard of the job.

'A lot of times you wish your mind would remove what your eyes have seen'

A Yukon fire crew at work. Some firefighters are calling for legislation like Alberta's that recognizes post-traumatic stress disorder as a hazard of the job. 'This is a very real occupational exposure,' says Ken Block, Edmonton’s fire chief. (submitted by Jim Regimbal)

Chris Cleland started as a volunteer ambulance driver at age 16. In 2000, he moved on to volunteer firefighting. Over the years, he’s seen many things. “Been to multiple calls of fatalities and calls of friends and what not,” he says.

Last spring, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don't, won't say that I was at that point of going to suicide, but I wasn't too far away from it.”  

Cleland says the challenge he faced getting his treatment covered shows the need for more provinces and territories to follow Alberta’s lead in making it easier for PTSD to be recognized as a hazard of the job. 

The Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs is also calling on the Yukon government to give special recognition to PTSD.

“A lot of times you wish your mind would remove what your eyes have seen, some of the fires you're going to and some of the smells and things that you see at the fire,” says Dawson City Fire Chief Jim Regimbal. “You put them in the back of your brain but they have a tendency to creep back up.”

Regimbal says Canada lost 23 firefighters to suicide in the first part of 2014. 

He helped Cleland get coverage through the Yukon Workers Compensation Board — a process Cleland says "felt like “being left behind."

"He first came to me in May," Regimbal says, "and it wasn't until, let's say, October that his case was approved by WCB."

Alberta legislation groundbreaking

Things would’ve been easier for Cleland if he’d lived in Alberta.

That province passed groundbreaking legislation two years ago that says if a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, it’s presumed to be work-related. That can include firefighters, municipal police officers, emergency medical technicians or sheriffs.

That means first responders don’t need to point to a specific incident to explain their PTSD. Instead, the law acknowledges that repeated exposures over the course of time can result in a diagnosis.

“This is a very real occupational exposure that needs to be recognized,” says Ken Block, Edmonton’s fire chief, who is also involved with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

Since initiating the new rules, Alberta has seen an increase in the number of people coming forward.

Block wants to other jurisdictions to follow suit.

“It makes no sense that a firefighter in Alberta would have coverage like this open to them and a firefighter in Saskatchewan or Ontario wouldn't.”

Cleland agrees. He’s hoping the Yukon government will follow Alberta's example.

“It wasn't easy for me to get through to people what was going on and I would like to see that be a lot easier.”

Today, Cleland has all of his services covered, including travel, he needs to do to see doctors, but he says it’s been hard on his wife and family. He's still doing fire work, but for now he's not going into buildings.

“I just stay outside for now until I can get more things straightened out in my head.”

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