April 8, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

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First responders struggle with on-duty violence: study

Nearly 60 per cent of City of Winnipeg firefighters and 69 per cent of paramedics have felt their lives were at risk while on-the-job in the past year, according to recent research out of the University of Manitoba.

Jennifer Setlack, who spearheaded the project as part of her honours thesis, said she was interested in studying the effects of workplace violence on the mental health and well-being of Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members.

Setlack has been a city paramedic for 11 years, and undertook the research during a leave of absence.

Manitoba Housing says it is reviewing a recent incident in which two on-duty Winnipeg firefighters were assaulted at one of its buildings.

“No tenant should ever feel unsafe in their home, which is why Manitoba Housing takes all matters of tenant security very seriously. We will be reviewing this incident to determine whether any further actions are warranted,” a Manitoba Housing spokesman said in a written statement.

Manitoba Housing says it is reviewing a recent incident in which two on-duty Winnipeg firefighters were assaulted at one of its buildings.

“No tenant should ever feel unsafe in their home, which is why Manitoba Housing takes all matters of tenant security very seriously. We will be reviewing this incident to determine whether any further actions are warranted,” a Manitoba Housing spokesman said in a written statement.

The Crown corporation issued the message in the aftermath of media reports tenants at the building on the 500 block of Elgin Avenue say they don’t feel safe leaving their suites when a fire alarm goes off.

James Sinclair, speaking Thursday to Global News, said he doesn’t automatically evacuate his suite when he hears the fire alarm, due to concerns over criminal activity in the building.

“Unless I actually smell smoke, if I see smoke or smell smoke, then I’ll go out and look around,” he said. “It’s too dangerous, you don’t know who’s out there... You don’t know if they’re gang members and if they’re going to stab you (or) shoot you, so it’s best to keep your head inside the house.”

On Tuesday, two Winnipeg firefighters were sent to the hospital after a conflict with a man in a hallway of the Elgin building.

Roy Junior Chief, 19, faces four criminal charges in connection with the incident, including assault with a weapon.

Sinclair said despite Manitoba Housing stressing every resident should evacuate when a fire alarm is activated, he has no plans to heed the advice. “It gets worse and worse and one of these times... there might be guns and whatnot and somebody’s going to get killed."

The Manitoba Housing spokesman said residents should report suspected unlawful activity in their buildings to the public safety investigations unit of Manitoba Justice.

— Ryan Thorpe

"I just really wanted to be able to prove statistically what I was seeing anecdotally. There are a lot of firefighters and paramedics that I’ve worked with for a very long time who I knew were struggling, so I wanted to use my education to show that to the department," Setlack told the Free Press.

"We’re finding high levels of (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, burnout and depression. There are a very high number of paramedics and firefighters that are struggling with those things."

On New Year’s Eve, firefighters responded to a Manitoba Housing apartment complex on the 500 block of Elgin Avenue for a report of a fire alarm. As members were going floor-to-floor, two firefighters were injured in a conflict with an individual allegedly armed with a knife.

Roy Junior Chief, 19, faces four criminal charges, including assault with a weapon.

Setlack said paramedics and firefighters are at elevated risks of developing mental health issues due to "frequent exposure to traumatic incidents inherent within their work."

Her research, which stemmed from interviews with nearly 250 WFPS members, found 19.4 per cent of local paramedics and 10.3 per cent of firefighters reported dealing with PTSD. There’s also an increased risk for emergency services workers to develop depression and anxiety, she said.

WFPS Chief John Lane said in a written statement that, during the past few years, there’s been a rise in the level of violence his members have been subjected to while on duty.

"Documented employee injury and exposure reports indicate increased employee exposure to workplace violence that is contributing to physical and mental health occupational stress injuries," Lane said.

Two firefighters were injured in a conflict with an allegedly armed individual in this Manitoba Housing apartment complex. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Two firefighters were injured in a conflict with an allegedly armed individual in this Manitoba Housing apartment complex. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"This includes distinct risks associated with contact with individuals under the influence of mood-and mind-altering drugs such as alcohol, opioids, and methamphetamine... The safety of WFPS members is paramount. As such, the WFPS executive has prioritized reducing the risk of violent incidents."

Lane said city paramedics and firefighters have always had the right to "self-stage" at any incident, meaning they can choose to wait until police arrive if they feel the situation is unsafe.

He also said during the past year the WFPS consulted with the Winnipeg Police Service, taking some components of its self-defence programs and incorporating them into the training firefighters and paramedics receive.

In October 2019, the WFPS hired a consulting firm to perform an assessment of the risks associated with on-the-job violence.

"The consultant is analyzing extensive data provided by stakeholders and is conducting interviews with WFPS members. Final recommendations are expected in early 2020, and the rollout of recommended changes will begin immediately, through the first half of the year," Lane said.

"Completion of the consultant recommendations will provide the necessary direction for the approach to this complex and pressing issue."

However, Setlack questions why the WFPS chose to hire an outside consulting firm — thereby pushing back the timeline for the implementation of changes — when she’d already independently conducted similiar research.

"I did this research for free; I took a leave of absence to do it. I presented the findings to the department last summer," Setlack said.

"They need to go back to the research to see what’s worked in other paramedic and firefighter populations. This isn’t new: paramedics and firefighters have experienced this level of violence in countries across the world and there have been interventions that have been proven to work."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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