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Twelve years after the night he nearly died, Lionel Crowther still speaks about the fire with a focus on those who didn’t make it.

It was Feb. 4, 2007, and Mr. Crowther had been called in for an overnight shift with the Winnipeg Fire Department. The first call of the night was a garage fire in a two-storey home – a typical call, until it wasn’t.

A sudden ignition trapped several firefighters on the second storey of the home. Mr. Crowther survived, but suffered burns to 70 per cent of his body; two fire captains died in the blaze.

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He was wracked with survivor’s guilt for years.

“Harold Lessard was the captain who was with me,” Mr. Crowther recalled in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “[Thomas Nichols] had already been killed. Thinking, ‘Okay, I’m out, [Capt. Lessard] is right there at the window, he’s going to make it,’ and then finding out after, when I was in hospital, that he didn’t – it was devastating.”

Mr. Crowther, now acting lieutenant at the Winnipeg Fire Department, is one of several speakers at the inaugural B.C. First Responders’ Mental Health Conference taking place in Richmond on Thursday and Friday. He shared his story with about 350 people in an effort to advance the dialogue on mental wellness among firefighters, police officers, paramedics and dispatchers.

Mr. Crowther said he struggled with processing not only the deaths, but also his new identity as a burn survivor.

“The bandages came off and I couldn’t even recognize myself,” he said. “My hands weren’t the same, my legs. Nothing was me any more.”

He returned to the job within a year, but grew short-tempered and irritable – signs he would later recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. For too long, he was afraid to seek help.

“I didn’t want anything else to go wrong," Mr. Crowther said. "Getting back on the job was huge for me. It was that mountain that I climbed. But then now I’ve got to say, ‘Guys, I have something else wrong?’ That stigma, that realization, was hard to come to.”

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He eventually connected with Steve Farina, vice-president of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, and attended a peer-driven resiliency workshop for first responders that he says changed his life. He now advocates for it to be replicated across fire departments in Canada.

WorkSafeBC, the provincial workers' health and safety agency, created the BC First Responders' Mental Health Committee in 2015 in an effort to guide the agencies that employ first responders in supporting their mental health.

The committee, which includes representatives from law enforcement, fire fighters, ambulance and First Nations, organized the conference to provide guidance and best practices in caring for employees' mental health.

The conference features 34 speakers and panelists discussing issues such as recognizing symptoms of operational stress injuries, building resilience and stigma.

First responders experience stressors on the job that can put them at higher risk of developing mental health issues than other occupations.

According to WorkSafeBC, first responders make up less than 1 per cent of British Columbia’s work force but accounted for 10 per cent of allowed claims for mental health disorders in 2016 and 2017.

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Delta Police Chief Neil Dubord, who is recognized nationally as an expert in critical incident command, spoke of the importance of leaders demonstrating, deliberately and overtly, support for employee health.

He cited as an example a Delta Police podcast series called Bend Don’t Break, featuring members who had experienced and overcome workplace challenges.

Kerri Buschel, director of marketing, experience and insights at WorkSafeBC, spoke of findings from surveys and focus groups with first responders used to develop the agency’s “Share it. Don’t wear it” anti-stigma campaign.

Stigma was still pervasive among first-responder agencies, she said, manifesting itself in inappropriate language from a boss, being held off a job despite being cleared by a workplace psychologist, and a sense of shame that prevents people from seeking help.

“People don’t seek help when they need it; they seek help when they’re about to break,” Ms. Buschel said.

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