Advocates calling for more mental health supports for first responders after death of firefighter

A Winnipeg firefighter’s tragic death is prompting calls for more mental health support in Manitoba.

Preston Heinbigner is being remembered as a loving husband and father, and will be recognized in the Manitoba legislature next week.

Flags at fire stations across Winnipeg are at half-mast to honour the life of Heinbigner, who was a firefighter for 17 years.

Advocates say they are hearing from first responders at an unprecedented rate. While they say it’s a step toward eradicating the stigma surrounding support seekers, people like Heinbigner need those supports sooner.

“In our world, our job, we see things that are unnatural. And we get put in situations that are unnatural, sometimes for extended periods. And these things can have a negative effect on our members,” said Tom Bilous, the president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg.

Bilous said Heinbigner’s death has rocked Winnipeg’s firefighter community to the core.

“We need more resources, more mental health responses. We need the capacity to see more of our members in a timely fashion.”

Advocates also want to make it more socially acceptable to ask for help.

“It’s OK to not feel OK,” said Scott Maxwell, the executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada. “It’s OK to maybe struggle with what they’ve done as a trauma exposed professional person.”

According to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS), psychological claims made by members to the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba have been on the rise in recent years, with 118 claims made in 2023.

“I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bilous. “I think the number is far higher than that, and that is very concerning.”

The Manitoba government said it’s committed to supporting first responders, but wouldn’t say how it plans to do that.

“As of right now, the focus for me is on the member’s statements,” said Waverley MLA David Pankratz. “Bringing community together, and making sure that we’re really honouring Preston and his family.”

The WFPS and United Firefighters of Winnipeg say they are working together to support Heinbigner’s family during this incredibly difficult time.

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