First responders with PTSD treated like ‘chump change,’ says former 911 operator at Surrey forum

KPU forum highlights need for legislative changes to WorkSafeBC to better support first responders with PTSD

NDP MLA Shane Simpson speaking to the audience at a KPU forum on PSTD last Friday. Simpson talked about legislative changes he's tabled aimed at better helping and supporting first responders suffering from the disorder.

NDP MLA Shane Simpson speaking to the audience at a KPU forum on PSTD last Friday. Simpson talked about legislative changes he's tabled aimed at better helping and supporting first responders suffering from the disorder.

“The cost of a first responder’s life, what’s that worth to you?”

It’s a simple but poignant question former 911 operator Rae-Lynn Dicks put to the crowd during a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) forum at KPU Surrey last week, organized in partnership with Badge of Life Canada.

It’s an issue that has devastated Surrey’s first responder community before. Surrey firefighter Kevin Hegarty took his own life in March 2015 after years of struggling with PTSD.

In all, 13 first responders took their own lives in B.C. that year, and 68 country-wide, according to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust. That number rose to 19 in B.C. last year, and 63 across Canada. So far this year, another three first responders have committed suicide in the province.

Dicks’ question is an important one, said NDP MLA Shane Simpson. Speaking to the audience at KPU last Friday, Simpson said he’s tabled Bill M203, the Workers Compensation Amendment Act, that would bring a presumptive clause in place in B.C. that would mean “if you were diagnosed with PTSD (and were a first responder) that you would immediately begin to receive service and support from workers compensation.

“There would be no need for an application,” he said. But Simpson said his bill won’t pass, seeing as he’s a member of the opposition. He said he will  re-introduce it on March 2 and calls on Minister Shirley Bond to pass it or  “tear the cover off of the legislation, put her own name on it,” and pass it.

“We could get that all done before we’re going to be out of the legislature (in mid-March).”

Simpson acknowledged some have criticized his bill for not covering other mental health injuries or occupations.

“But as I’ve said to folks, it’s kind of like trying to get your foot in the door at this point.”

Data from Worksafe B.C. shown at the forum revealed that from July 2, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2015, 432 first responders submitted mental health claims. Of those, 154 were allowed.

Dicks (pictured) also spoke to the crowd Friday and told of her 10-year career that she said has left her with PTSD, major depression and general anxiety disorder. She returns to KPU (of which she is a three-time alumna) every semester to share her story with students.

Dicks said the job’s impact was not discussed in her schooling, which is why she shares her story with students, viewing it as a way to give back to the first responder community.

Her voice cracking as she fought back tears at the forum, Dicks said every time she or other PTSD sufferers hear of another first responder taking his or her own life, it’s as though “a medicine ball were thrown at our chests while our arms are confined behind our backs, wrists in handcuffs, shackles binding our feet in a bed of mud.

“Some feel the blow as a direct hit reinforcing anger and resentment at a system that is so good at helping the public in their time of need, yet so broken when it comes to helping our own,” she added.

“WorkSafe BC legislation needs to change because it’s costing first responders their life,” said Dicks. “And they’re being treated like chump change. In B.C., 35 lives in two years. And these are only the ones we know about.”

These injuries, she said, are “just the same as having a broken arm or a burn or a bullet wound.”

“My injury caused the end of my marriage,” she added. “My injury almost cost me my life.”

In an emailed statement, Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Responsible for Labour, said B.C.’s legislation for workers compensation is “among the broadest in Canada and includes coverage for work-related mental disorders, including PTSD” and B.C. “continues to be the only jurisdiction that recognizes in legislation diagnosed, work-related mental health disorders for both traumatic events and chronic stressors.”

The government has created the First Responders Mental Health Committee, but Simpson worries its mandate isn’t broad enough.

“The thing they’ve been told they can’t talk about is a presumptive clause. The committee is not allowed to talk about any legislative changes,” he told the audience at the forum.

The government did not respond to his assertion before the Now’s press time.

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com