TRAUMA and death are frequently part of their work, which can take a significant toll on the mental health of firefighters and paramedics.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is searching for a contractor to provide psychological services for those staff, as well as develop and support a behavioural health unit to serve them.
The service says the need for that support is especially high now because its 1,500 front-line staff continue to cope with traumatic situations, as well as an increase in workplace violence.
"The ongoing exposure to these events has a significant impact on the mental health of staff and their ability to sustain a career given the cumulative impact this will have. The result is an increasing number of absences due to occupational stress injuries and curtailment of careers," the request for proposals notes.
Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service spokesperson Kristin Cuma said the pandemic has added to that pressure.
"Over the past 16 months... both patients and responders are experiencing higher levels of stress and this is leading to higher-stress calls for service," said Cuma, in an emailed statement.
Those demands appear to have had a significant impact on emergency crews. In 2020, 11,371 paramedic and firefighter hours were lost due to psychological Workers Compensation Board claims by Sept. 26. That’s up from 5,064 hours for all of 2019 and 8,830 hours throughout 2018.
The new support unit will include a nurse and consulting psychologist, as well as a peer support and wellness team, tasked with increasing staff resilience and supporting employees after traumatic experiences.
The city expects the unit to ensure those with urgent needs are seen within 24 hours of a referral and non-urgent appointments are provided within one week.
The city will pay up to $250,000 for the contract, with a behavioural health unit plan and "initial implementation" due by the end of this year.
This help is desperately needed, said Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg union.
"This is one of our biggest priorities and we are glad the city is finally moving forward on this and having a legitimate mental health support for our members," said Forrest.
Cuma said WFPS has several mental health supports in place, including a peer support team, critical-incident stress-management program and an employee/family assistance program.
Forrest said members felt those supports fell short of what’s needed, especially during the pandemic.
"I’ve never seen it be so hard on our members than it has been (this) last year, having to deal with the normal stresses … and the added stresses of COVID," he said.
In addition, Forrest said reports of violence occur on a near-weekly basis.
"It just seems to be getting more commonplace. I believe it has a lot to do with the increased use of drugs (throughout Winnipeg)," he said. "We’ve had firefighters who have (experienced) everything from being spit on, to bitten, to punched, to (being) threatened with a weapon."
A representative for Winnipeg paramedics said high stress levels have also triggered an increase in sick days.
"When you have these high-stress events that we go to… over and over and over again, you start to get an increase in sick time usage," said Ryan Woiden, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union local 911.
Woiden said "extremely poor" mental health has led an increasing number of paramedics to quit their city positions for other jobs.
Both Forrest and Woiden called the new mental-health unit "long overdue."
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.