As a youngster, Paul Lafrance was inspired by a mentor to become a firefighter.
In November 1995, he achieved his dream and joined the Winnipeg fire department to help save lives.
In his spare time, he was a counselor at a camp for child burn survivors.
But the long-serving firefighter also battled addiction and mental illness, and he died by suicide in 2015 at the age of 44.
Now, his family hopes he’ll be remembered by the life he lived and those he helped — not by how he died.
In memory of Lafrance, the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg and the fire department have partnered to help members pay for a stay at the IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery in Maryland.
“My brother Paul struggled, but he struggled in strength, too,” said John Lemire, Lafrance’s older brother. “He was always trying to be strong — a lot of people with mental illness do. They fight a good fight. But it wears you down. Unfortunately for Paul, he lost the battle.”
The program will be available to all UFFW union members who are in good standing — active or retired. There are currently 1,500 active members.
“We identified the need for more mental health tools in our toolbox,” said Tom Bilous, UFFW president and a former friend and colleague of Lafrance. “We firmly believe this will save livelihoods and potentially save lives.”
The Maryland treatment center, which was designed by firefighters, treats PTSD, addiction and other mental health challenges. The care is informed by the stressors firefighters deal with on the job.
Lemire said that although his brother sought help, there wasn’t always support for the specific challenges he faced.
“That’s why I’m really happy that they created this fund,” Lemire said.
No UFFW member has undergone treatment at the Maryland facility as of yet, Bilous said. However, 2,500 members of the International Association of Fire Fighters have gone through the program. Bilous said he was “blown away” during a tour of the campus a few years ago.
“When we identified the need in bargaining for some more mental health options, this (centre) came up again,” Bilous said.
The union has, for years, helped send its members to facilities across the province and country for treatment, Bilous said. But, I have added this center stands out from supports in Canada because it caters directly to professional union firefighters.
“We all do the same job. We speak the same lingo… We see the same things: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Bilous said. “So, you don’t have to spend time telling a therapist what it’s like to be a firefighter.”
The roughly $360,000 for the program was negotiated as part of the union’s existing four-year contract. The funding is the amount the City of Winnipeg would have contributed to the salary of former UFFW president Alex Forrest over the next 3.6 years. The contract was specific to Forrest, not to the position of president.
An average 35-day stay at the Maryland facility costs approximately $40,000, Bilous said. The program will pay for up to 50 per cent of a member’s combined in-patient treatment and travel costs.
“That way, members still have some skin in the game; they have to be invested financially and motivated to get well,” Bilous said. “People can apply if they feel this is a good fit for them… It’s a case-by-case basis, and we listen to everything, but everything is driven through medical professionals.”
Carmen Lemire, Lafrance’s mother, said she’s happy other firefighters will get help.
“He had a lot of friends in the fire department,” Carmen said.
John Lemire said he appreciates the union’s effort to bargain with the city and hopes the fund will chip away at the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction.
“A lot of people don’t want to come forward because they think it’s a weakness,” Lemire said.
Fire halls will receive information about the program in the coming days.
Katlyn Streilein is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. She can be reached by phone at 204-697-7132 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org