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Fire chief pushes for PTSD prevention

The president of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs says helping first responders deal with trauma must focus first on education and training, not on legislative change.

The president of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs says helping first responders deal with trauma must focus first on education and training, not on legislative change.

“Once you’re diagnosed with PTSD you can’t reverse it, much in the same way once you’re an alcoholic you’re an alcoholic,” said Jim Regimbal, who is also the Dawson fire chief.

“The only way to prevent someone from being diagnosed with a PTSD injury is to have a prevention and education component.”

We have to remove the stigma that tells first responders they can’t talk about their feelings and instead have “an ongoing process put into the training curriculum so that we know that we’ve got healthy, fit - both physically and mentally - first responders,” he said.

This week the NDP tabled Bill No. 106. It would change the law so that if a firefighter, paramedic or emergency dispatcher is diagnosed with PTSD, it’s assumed to be a workplace injury.

Under the current legislation, someone requesting support from the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board for PTSD has to prove there is a connection between their illness and their job.

It’s not that the association is against the idea of presumptive legislation, it’s just that it’s not needed here, he said.

“I commend WCB and the government for putting that in place in 2008,” he said.

Regimbal said he’s never heard of a Yukon first responder with diagnosed PTSD having trouble proving it was work-related.

But NDP Leader Liz Hanson said her office has, and that’s why this bill is important. It takes the onus off of the person to prove their PTSD is work-related.

“It is intended to avoid the situations where people are having to be further stressed and traumatized by delays in having their claim accepted as PTSD,” she said.

Hanson said she has had very positive responses from first responders after putting the bill forward.

She said she hopes the government will assess it and consider putting it out to public consultation.

At the same time Hanson encouraged the government to improve education and training when it comes to PTSD.

That’s something that Michael Swainson knows about personally. Since being diagnosed with PTSD himself he now dedicates his time to helping others avoid that path.

Swainson was a Yukon paramedic for 18 years when the trauma of everything he’s experienced on the job, including dead friends, caught up with him in 2002, he said.

He’d find himself having rambling conversations. He couldn’t focus and got almost no sleep.

“Every time you go to one of those things, it’s like it takes a bite out of you. And how many bites can you have taken out of you before you fall over?”

It would be six more years on the job before Swainson reached out for help and got a diagnosis of PTSD.

It took 13 months for WCB to approve his claim.

He says that things have gotten much better since then. Most people he knows will have their claim approved within a month.

“(But) the legislation is for post-event, so after first responders have been exposed. What we want to see is education and prevention,” he said.

Most of the resources available to first responders, if they have the courage to reach out, come after a traumatic event through things like stress debriefings and counselling.

Swainson said first responders need education around what to expect and how to cope before they have that traumatic experience. They need to learn the importance of talking about it.

That’s what he teaches now.

In March, he put on a day-long seminar at Yukon College and a three-hour condensed version specifically for Regimbal’s firefighters in Dawson.

Regimbal called it “amazing.”

“The younger firefighters and the older firefighters - the ones that have less than a year on my department to those that have 35 plus years - were just blown away that they’ve never had this training before, and how it could definitely help.”

Both the current rules and the NPD’s bill require a PTSD diagnosis before WCB benefits are made available.

That’s something that could change, Regimbal said.

In one case in his department, it took five months for someone to get the diagnosis. He was first seen by a WCB doctor who denied he had PTSD before he went to an Outside specialist who confirmed the diagnosis.

Regimbal thinks the legislation could be improved by allowing a person to start getting WCB’s help as soon as they reach out, even before the official diagnosis.

Yukon EMS director Jeff Simons said his department is working on more accessible training.

Right now, if a paramedic is struggling with something they’ve experienced on the job, supports range from a conversation with other people who were there to more structured counselling sessions.

For the last few years the department has also been offering classes on things like PTSD symptoms to keep an eye out for.

It’s been offered about once a year, when people are interested in getting together.

They are working on putting that training online so that it is accessible to everyone working across the Yukon, he said.

“It will be right up there with how to work your radio and how to safely drive an ambulance,” he said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at