Surrey firefighter Ernie Dombrowski took his own life but died in the line of duty according to a WorkSafe B.C. ruling that could assist other first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The decision, according to Surrey Firefighters Association president Mike McNamara, will make it possible for other first responders to make claims related to mental health.
"We need to do the best job we can to identify those operational stress injuries and capture it early and get treatment early so we don't get to that PTSD," said McNamara, speaking outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria.
McNamara was attending a ceremony where Dombrowski's name was added to a memorial list of firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
The ruling qualifies Dombrowski's widow, Gena, to receive more than $3,000 a month in survivor's benefits.
In 2013, he responded to a hit and run call where a victim had been left on the roadside.
The incident left him shaken. Two years later he took his own life.
Tough calls 'hit him hard'
"He just struggled with not being able to help everybody, " said Gena Dombrowski outside the legislature in Victoria.
"He took it to heart every time he went out to a call. There were some tough calls and it really hit him hard."
As well, the couple's son will qualify to receive four years of post-secondary education funding from the International Association of Firefighters.
"I'm just hoping for future firefighters, and that there is help for them before something gets so desperate," said Dombrowski.
McNamara said there is an unspoken culture among firefighters that doesn't encourage people to exhibit weakness. "You just suck it up. This is the job. This is the work.
"If you can't handle it, you shouldn't be here," he said.
"We're starting to recognize we're not programmed like that as human beings — that we need to be able to cope and deal with it a little bit more efficiently as soon as possible."
Private member's bill
Last month, NDP Vancouver-Hastings MLA Shane Simpson introduced a private member's bill that aims to amend the Workers' Compensation Act with a "presumptive clause." Under that clause, if any firefighter, police officer or other first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, it will be assumed "to be an injury that arose out of and occurred during the course of the worker's employment."
Private member's bills rarely pass in the legislature.
Meanwhile, a public safety personnel peer support organization called TEMA.CA reports that 63 first responders died by suicide in Canada in 2016, including 19 in B.C.
So far this year, nine first responders have already taken their own lives across the country.