Mr. Chair, esteemed members of the committee, I want to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and to address the issue of critical importance.
My name is Pierre Boissonneault. I am the fire chief for the Country of Brant, Ontario, and the president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
Founded in 1909, the CAFC is an independent not-for-profit organization representing approximately 3,500 fire departments across Canada. As the voice of fire services in Canada, the CAFC promotes the highest standard of public safety in an ever-changing and increasingly complex world. The CAFC acts as a national public service association dedicated to reducing loss of life and property from fire. Our vision statement is “uniting Canada's fire service leaders”, and our mission statement is “connecting Canada's provincial/territorial allied associations and external stakeholders for the advancement of public and firefighter safety”.
Firefighting is a physically demanding occupation, as is widely accepted, but greater attention to mental and emotional stresses of the role is needed. There is currently no national-level plan in place to support public safety officers coping with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other operational stress injuries.
In his mandate letter to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the Prime Minister listed the following among top priorities:
Work with provinces and territories and the Minister of Health to develop a coordinated national action plan on post-traumatic stress disorder, which disproportionately affects public safety officers.
With a view to fulfilling his mandate, Minister Goodale organized a national round table for PTSD that took place on January 29, 2016, at the University of Regina. The full-day event was chaired by Michel Picard, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and brought together academics from across this country, representatives from various levels of government, as well as leadership from organizations representing first responders and emergency workers.
Addressing participants via video message, the minister said:
Over the years, I have heard repeatedly from the public safety community that more needs to be done for those suffering from PTSD. We routinely ask public safety officers to stand in harm’s way to protect and keep Canadians safe, and for that, they deserve the highest level of support and care. I am sorry to have missed today’s round table, but I look forward to hearing the outcomes of the conversation. A national action plan on PTSD will not only support the health and well-being of the public safety community, but will also contribute to the safety of Canada.
The CAFC commends Minister Goodale's commitment to this very important initiative as we face a number of challenges on the path to ensuring mental health and wellness for all our public safety officers from across this country.
Dr. Nick Carleton of the University of Regina, who has spoken before this committee in recent months, highlighted the difficulty in calculating the rate of first responders who will develop PTSD due to the stigma associated with mental illness. Nevertheless, he stated that the figure could be as high as 35%. Culturally, there is a discomfort in addressing mental health issues that stems from a lack of understanding, and it fosters cynicism about an illness that can be associated with poor behaviour or declining performance.
Further to this, more than half of those with mental health problems will not seek treatment. Among firefighters, the stigma of mental illness acts as a barrier, preventing individuals from making use of mental health services. They fear negative impacts on their careers and lack the knowledge of how to access services that are available to them. We must work quickly to alter this perception. According to the The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 16 first responders have died by suicide so far this year, in addition to the 39 suicide deaths in 2015.
Another challenge lies in the composition of the fire services in Canada. In addition to full-time departments, there are also composite and volunteer departments, each of which presents a unique set of challenges. As one would imagine, volunteer departments may lack the resources to properly administer support programs, and a lack of personnel rules out peer support in many instances. That being said, the provision of a mental wellness program could be a key incentive for recruitment and retention.
In order to address these challenges, the CAFC has partnered with other organizations that are working toward the same objectives.
In September of last year, we launched the mental wellness road map initiative in collaboration with the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the University of Regina. Working with key stakeholders, this long-term initiative hopes to identify the tools required to support the fire service in recognition, prevention, intervention, and treatment of mental health issues facing firefighters across this country.
These initiatives alone are not enough. Funding is required for research on mental health issues among firefighters, to improve the capacity of the fire service and health professionals, to quantify their prevalence, and properly guide diagnosis and treatment efforts. Educational programs that improve mental health resilience and literacy, and provide the skills and knowledge to help firefighters better manage potential or developing mental health problems in themselves or a colleague, is especially important in addressing these barriers.
Appropriate training programs and supports to prepare firefighters to effectively address their mental health needs need to be developed, implemented, and funded on an ongoing basis. PTSD should be officially recognized by provinces as a workplace hazard for firefighters to ensure that they are able to access workplace insurance coverage. We need to continue to work on our coordinated national action plan on PTSD, collaborating with the provinces and territories to establish consistent practices across this country in assessment of mental health as part of recruitment; to recognize the role of mental health in overall wellness; and to recognize the importance of an investment in mental wellness support for firefighters in education, training, and support programs to current and former fire service personnel and their families.
As the fires rage in Fort McMurray, the eyes of the nation are upon our brothers and sisters who unflinchingly head towards the flames, combatting the spread in the interest of public safety. In extreme heat, through thick smoke, their unwavering commitment propels them onward in an area where all others have been evacuated.
Day and night, this nation's public safety officers stand tall in the face of danger, in order to protect their friends, families, and members of their communities. Surely, the latter individuals must want to protect these brave men and women from the dangers that they are not equipped to overcome.
On behalf of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, I thank you for the opportunity to be consulted during this study and to speak before this very committee.
I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
Thank you very much.