'Lean on each other': First responder at Broncos' crash says support helps in coping

As hundreds of would-be volunteer firefighters gather in Nipawin for training this weekend, Mitchell Lapchuk is going to hammer home a message he’s learned from years of handling the stress of responding to disasters — that it's OK to ask for help.

Volunteer firefighters will talk about coping with disasters at Spring Fire School in Nipawin this weekend

Various emergency services agencies have left a tribute to the victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash at the site of the accident. Although first responders tend to think of the people they help first, they also need support after a traumatic event. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

As hundreds of would-be volunteer firefighters gather in Nipawin, Sask., for training this weekend, Mitchell Lapchuk is going to hammer home a message he's learned from years of handling the stress of responding to disasters.

Lapchuk, a volunteer firefighter in Balgonie, was among those who responded to the April 6 Humboldt Broncos' team bus crash. It was one of many difficult scenes he's seen in his lifetime.

As a teacher at this weekend's 2018 Spring Fire School and Trade Show, which takes place in Nipawin — 225 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, and about 30 kilometres north of the site of the April 6 crash — he wants aspiring volunteer firefighters to know they can ask for help to cope.

"I'd like to mostly hammer home it's all right to talk about it," he said of firefighters' response to stress.

Lapchuk said he first realized the toll of responding to disasters in high school. As a junior firefighter, he was on the scene of a motor vehicle collision that left him shaken. He said he began to turn to alcohol, and a fast and cheap diet that took its toll on his health, until he met the woman he would eventually marry.   

"This isn't how it's supposed to be," he recalled her saying. "You can reach out for help. You can talk to people."

Mitchell Lapchuk is a volunteer firefighter from Balgonie, Sask., and was among those who responded to the April 6 Humboldt Broncos' team bus crash. He will be among those working with aspiring volunteer firefighters at an an annual Spring Fire School and Trade Show, which takes place this weekend in Nipawin. (CBC News)

Lapchuk said responding to the Broncos' crash has been a setback to his healing. He's experiencing some of what he describes as the normal reaction in the immediate aftermath of a stressful incident, including nightmares, flashbacks, and avoidance of certain triggers.

"It kind of starts off small, gets to a plateau and then about 20 to 30 days post-incident, it'll start declining," he said, explaining he's waiting to see how he feels as time passes.

However, talking to other first responders can help, he said.

"You can come together as a community and kind of lean on each other."

Mental health disorders not uncommon

Dr. Nicholas Carleton, professor of psychology at the University of Regina, says research shows 44 per cent of public safety personnel may screen positive for one or more mental health disorders at any given time.

There are more resources now than there have been to help support first responders, including a Saskatchewan critical incident stress management team that offers help from peer counsellors, as well as further health support from licensed and accredited counsellors. As much support as there is, Carleton said there can always be improvement in services.

"I think we can always do better for our first responders and public safety personnel who are always putting their lives on the line to protect all of us," he said.

Training session near crash scene

This weekend's annual Spring Fire School, offering training for new volunteer firefighter recruits, happened to be scheduled in Nipawin, near the scene of the team bus crash that has so far claimed the lives of 16 people.

The collision took place April 6 on Highway 35, about 30 kilometres north of Tisdale, Sask., near the junction of Highway 335.

The Broncos were en route to Nipawin for a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks at the time of the April 6 crash, which happened between the communities of Nipawin and Tisdale.

This isn't something that you go out with a Band-Aid or a magic wand one time and it's done- Doug Lapchuk , president for volunteer firefighters association

Doug Lapchuk, president of Saskatchewan's volunteer firefighters association, said he anticipates the weekend could be difficult for some who will be at the event.

"I think it's going to hit a lot of our firefighters very hard, but I also think it's part of the healing process as well," he said of the opportunity to bring people together to talk to each other.

Peer counsellors were deployed for the Nipawin and Tisdale fire departments that responded to the Broncos' crash, he said. But Lapchuk acknowledged that supporting firefighters is an ongoing issue.

An emergency vehicle is seen near the site of the crash involving the Broncos' team bus on April 6. (Kymber Rae/AFP/Getty Images)

"This isn't something that you go out with a Band-Aid or a magic wand one time and it's done. It's going to be a continuing thing."

Dedication to their communities is one of the factors that keeps volunteer firefighters going, he said.

"It can be very rewarding to pull up at a scene and help somebody out and then have them survive, or walk away or not lose their house," said Lapchuk.

"To have them come and say thank you for what we've done is quite often more than enough to keep us going."  

With files from Christy Climenhaga and CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition