'A punch to the gut': Edmonton firefighter's suicide spurs conversation on PTSD

03 Sep 2018 | Canada
'A punch to the gut': Edmonton firefighter's suicide spurs conversation on PTSD

A firefighter's death last week is prompting Edmonton's fire chief to open up the conversation about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder among emergency responders.

Fire Chief Ken Block described Marc Renaud as an exceptional young man and an "exceptional firefighter who gave tremendous service to the community."

"He was the ultimate professional when it comes to knowing his trade as a firefighter," Block said. 

Renaud, 29, died last week.

In an unconventional move for both emergency services and media, Renaud's death is being reported as a suicide.

"It's a punch to the gut," Block told media after the service Saturday. "Any time you lose a member of the family, and our fire rescue services is very much a family — it's very difficult."

Block said Renaud was suffering from depression.

Colleagues have been spending the week asking what they could have done differently to save Renaud's life.

But Block said that's likely not the right approach.

"The emergency services are challenged with this incredible burden, is the way I will put it," he said. "Post-traumatic stress injury that in many cases is resulting from extreme exposure to some very difficult circumstances on the emergency ground."

'Not taboo in the stations' 
Two programs are available for firefighters. One, called Mental Health First Aid, teaches emergency responders about the learning signs and symptoms that come with depression and mental injury.

Road to Mental Readiness attempts to train individuals how to assess their own mental health.

Both are accredited by Canada's commission on mental health. All firefighters have taken both programs, Block said.

He said the dialogue about PTSD and the culture within the fire stations have shifted dramatically in a few short years.

"This subject is not taboo in the stations," Block said.

Suicide as a result of post-traumatic stress injury is common, he added.​

"Our crews, our firefighters much more freely share ... where they are on that mental wellness continuum," he said. "That's a significant step forward."

Block said a task force keeps an eye on new developments and is working toward a better program to build resiliency among firefighters. 

He said there's a lot of much work that needs to be done, and they are far from being able to say they've found the solution to what he calls a "dilemma."

So far, neither the family nor fire services have official documentation that Renaud was diagnosed with PTSD — a requirement for the family to receive Workers' Compensation Board benefits.

Renaud was seeking professional help, so Block said they are hoping counselors will have information on file that Renaud was being treated for PTSD.

A traditional firefighters' funeral service ends with the chief ringing an alarm bell. The ceremony signifies that the firefighter's job has come to an end, and in this case, Renaud has concluded his service to the community. cbc