Surrey firefighter’s suicide ruled work-related, benefits awarded to family

Vancouver Sun  |  KENT SPENCER  |  Published on: March 5, 2017

Encouraging news has come to the family of the late Ernie Dombrowski, a Surrey firefighter who took his own life two years ago after suffering workplace trauma.

WorkSafe B.C., a provincial agency that pays compensation for employment-related injuries, has determined his death was due to “psychological injury” suffered on the job.

While the finding will never bring him back, his widow Gena Dombrowski said it is comforting to know that 44-year-old Ernie lost his life in the line of duty.

“It was kind of bittersweet when I first heard about it. It’s good for the family but we don’t have Ernie,” said Dombrowski, who is raising their 15-year-old son Jason on her own.

The ruling means the family will receive more than $3,000 a month in survivor’s benefits, which Gena said will provide “huge” financial relief.

Being killed in the line of duty also means he will be among the B.C. firefighters honoured on Monday (March 6) when his name will go up on a B.C. firefighters’ memorial wall during a ceremony near the legislature in Victoria.

One other good thing has transpired: Jason qualifies for four years of financial support for his post-secondary education, courtesy of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Ernie’s sister Annette Dombrowski said she was “really happy” with the decision.

“They have made Ernie a person and not just a file,” she said.

Co-workers noticed a change in Ernie after an unsettling incident in 2013: a hit and run victim had been cruelly left at the side of the road and the callous disregard for human life left him shaken.

“That was one of the stresses that took him to a dark place,” said Surrey Acting Fire Captain Dan Kehler.

Gena said he felt “there wasn’t enough he could do to make lives better.”

While the WorkSafe B.C. news is good for the family, Gena said much bigger things are at stake for thousands of B.C.’s first responders — police, paramedics and firefighters — who must deal with horrible incidents on a routine basis.

She said it was important for others to know about Ernie’s award and added she was prepared to publicly share the family’s grief with Postmedia News in order to get the word out.

“The award is good for the firefighters who are not being taken seriously and saying they need to get better help. The psychologist only had time to see Ernie once a week. Things never moved fast enough for him. The authorities need to realize this is the real thing. I believe this will make it possible for other first responders to make claims related to mental injuries,” she said.

Raising awareness has long been the goal of Kehler, who was Ernie’s friend and colleague.

“A psychological injury is no different than a physical injury like breaking your leg in a fire,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, anyone can suffer this kind of trauma.”

He said serious mental anguish need not be life-threatening: professional help is available, coping strategies can be found and there are ways to separate disturbing workplace incidents from regular life.

Concerns about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were raised in Victoria last week following reports of steeply rising suicide rates. In 2016, 63 first responders took their lives in Canada, including 19 in B.C.

Opposition MLA Shane Simpson (NDP, Vancouver-Hastings) said the remedy lies in new legislation whereby first responders are “presumed” to have suffered the injury because of their work; and on March 2 he re-introduced a private member’s bill to that effect.

However, such bills rarely pass and the B.C. Liberals insist the current system works: they say B.C. was the first province to recognize work-related mental disorders in 2012.

The circumstances of Dombrowski’s posthumous award are unusual. Not only is the connection between stress and workplace injury difficult to establish, Kehler said Ernie refused to start a file with WorkSafe B.C. and doctors in the B.C. health system never diagnosed him with PTSD.

“Ernie was a wonderful human being. He was strong mentally and physically. (But) he was a guy who didn’t want to be labelled with a mental health disorder because he felt there was a stigma,” said Kehler.

“Among firemen there is an unsaid culture that says you suck it up and get on with it. He was not willing to embrace his condition,” Kehler said.

The claim to WorkSafe B.C. took nine months to be resolved. Submissions included reports from a psychologist who was treating Ernie and a letter from the firefighter mentioning “depression” and “PTSD” as contributing factors to his condition, said Kehler.

He said the adjudicator found that “Mr. Dombrowski’s death arose out of and in the course of his employment.

“The evidence establishes that there is a sufficiently substantial employment connection and I have determined that coverage is appropriately extended,” the adjudicator said in a Jan. 13 ruling.