Lots of support for Humboldt Broncos first responders, but risk of PTSD can be long-term, experts say

Paramedics, firefighters and police officers who responded to the horrific crash in rural Saskatchewan are in the midst of debriefings to help them talk about what happened, but agencies emphasize that post-traumatic stress symptoms can take weeks, months, or years to appear.

'Just because you received some care early on doesn't mean that that's all that you may need'

Various emergency services agencies have left a tribute to the victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash at the site of the accident. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

First responders who helped the victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan say they have been receiving lots of support since they arrived at that horrific scene on April 6 — but a long-term approach will be needed to prevent and address symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say.  

"The funny thing about PTSD… is that you never know when it's really going to strike," said Dr. Manuela Joannou, an emergency department physician in Perth, Ont., and founder of Project Trauma Support — a group treatment program for first responders and military veterans.  

"People can be doing very well after a difficult call for weeks, months — years even — and then something might happen that will kind of bring it all back and will start people ruminating about what happened." 

Sixteen people, including players, coaches, an athletic therapist, team broadcaster and the driver were killed after the team bus collided with a semi-trailer. Thirteen others were injured. 

Dr. Manuela Joannou wants the first responders affected by the crash to know if they develop PTSD and get the proper care, there is 'every reason' to believe they can recover. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

The magnitude of the devastation, coupled with the fact that most of the dozens of paramedics, police and firefighters (including many volunteers) were from local communities, could add to the trauma they experienced, Joannou said.

"When you're in a small town area, you know, chances are it's going to be somebody that you know that's going to be involved," she said. "And when there's a mass casualty, it's just really, really difficult to get in and organize the scene and get your priorities and do your triaging."

"There's just so many emotions that you're trying to work around and trying to maybe hold back so you can do your work professionally, but those things are going to come back to, you know, try to get your attention at some point."

In the two weeks since the crash, first responders have been taking part in the first phase of support, known as critical incident stress management (CISM), that emergency services provide after first responders work a particularly traumatic event. 

CISM is triggered by certain types of accidents, including those involving kids or mass casualties, said Matthew Hogan, a flight paramedic with Saskatchewan's STARS air ambulance service. He was not on the scene of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, although some of his colleagues were.  

Matthew Hogan, a flight paramedic for STARS air ambulance based in Saskatoon, says awareness of PTSD has improved dramatically since he began working in the field 17 years ago. (STARS)

Although the nature of an air ambulance service means its paramedics and pilots are accustomed to treating the most critically ill and injured patients, and must deal with deaths on a regular basis, "there are incidents that stick with you more than others," he said. 

In addition to having 17 years of experience as a paramedic, Hogan is also a member of the critical incident and peer support team at the STARS Saskatoon base. 

The first step of the CISM process is debriefing the crew that responded to the event, he said. 

"You want to go through it, find out their point of view, and just have a chance to kind of talk out the whole call. That really seems to help a lot." he said.

But unlike an organization like STARS, rural communities such as Tisdale and Nipawin, Sask. — where many of the first responders came from — don't have the in-house resources to conduct critical incident debriefings. The Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association sent nine "fellow firefighters" trained as peer counsellors to do that within 24 hours of the crash, association president Doug Lapchuk told CBC News.  

The association is also sending accredited instructors from Regina to a peer counselling session this weekend in Nipawin, he said. 

Ensuring that being from a rural community isn't a barrier for first responders getting the help they need, not only now but in the weeks and months to come, is critical, said Julius Brown, the head of Operational Stress Injury Canada (OSI-CAN), based in Regina. 

An emergency vehicle is seen near the crash site on April 6 after a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos team bus collided with a semi-trailer truck. Sixteen people were killed. (Kymber Rae/AFP/Getty Images)

"One of the things about the rural communities is… their first responders, a lot of them, don't have the kind of insurance that supplies for going to see a psychologist," he said.  

OSI-CAN, a joint non-profit project of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Saskatchewan Division and the Royal Canadian Legion, provides both individual trauma counselling and peer support groups for veterans and first responders.

The organization plans to set up local support groups in Tisdale and other communities "for the long-term help that comes after a tragedy like this," Brown told CBC News. 

As a starting point, staff from OSI-CAN went to a lunch organized by the Royal Canadian Legion in Tisdale for the first responders a few days after the bus crash. More than 60 first responders and hospital staff attended, according to the legion's past-president, Sheridan Ellington. 

Several of the first responders who attended that day have already contacted the organization seeking support, Brown said. 

Another organization that provides post-traumatic support to first responders, Wounded Warriors Canada, is also offering help, said executive director Scott Maxwell. 

'Just because you received some care early on doesn't mean that that's all that you may need,' says Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada. 'And that's OK.' (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

As of Wednesday evening, an online fundraising campaign it started with partner organization TEMA Conter Memorial Trust, had raised more than $110,000 for Humboldt first responders. 

That money will help ensure that they can get whatever help they need, from individual counselling to residential group support, at any time they may struggle with PTSD in the future, said Maxwell.  

"When the adrenaline fades, and the story of Humboldt… will not be on the news all day, every day," said Maxwell, "they need to realize that they're not alone, that help is available."

"Just because you received some care early on doesn't mean that that's all that you may need. And that's OK."


Some signs of post-traumatic stress:

Dr. Manuela Joannou says it's important for family and friends of first responders affected by trauma to be aware of the signs that their loved one may be experiencing distress, because they can often "hold it together" at work but then behave differently at home.  

  • Irritability.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Restlessness.
  • Nightmares.
  • Flashbacks.
  • Intrusive thoughts.
  • Increased self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
  • Isolation.
  • Lack of willingness to go out to social functions.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.

About the Author

Nicole Ireland

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.