Compensation board recognizes firefighter's suicide as work-related injury

Decision brings financial relief to grieving family

Compensation board recognizes firefighter's suicide as work-related injury

The Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba has determined that the suicide of Winnipeg firefighter Preston Heinbigner was a result of a workplace injury. This ruling ensures financial benefits and counseling for his family, according to the United Firefighters of Winnipeg (UFW).

UFW president Tom Bilous said the decision serves as a "vindication" for those who knew Heinbigner: "There was never any question that the exposures from the job were…the dominant cause that led to this tragedy.”

Heinbigner died by suicide on April 9. He had served as a firefighter since 2007 and was reportedly battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his job experiences. He leaves behind his wife, Shayda, a two-year-old son, and another baby on the way.

CBC News obtained a memo from the union, which informed members of the compensation board's decision. The memo highlighted that the ruling acknowledged the direct impact of Heinbigner's job-related exposures on his mental health, equating the significance of mental health injuries to physical ones in causing workplace fatalities.

Bilous noted that Heinbigner's family will now have access to necessary support, including financial aid, counseling, and educational scholarships for his children. They are also eligible to apply for a federal grant for families of first responders who die in the line of duty.

"This provides some solace knowing that the family, his young family, will be taken care of not only today, but well into the future," Bilous said.

The compensation board's ruling is expected to increase awareness of the mental health risks firefighters face and improve the resources available to them. Premier Wab Kinew recently announced provincial funding for three counselors to support law enforcement, paramedics, and firefighters.

However, Cameron Abrey, former president of the Manitoba Association of Fire Chiefs, expressed concerns about the adequacy of this support, noting the high demand among the approximately 10,000 first responders in Manitoba: "Three counselors are likely to be overwhelmed with the issues out there. So do we have other potential solutions to that?"

Data from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service indicates a rise in psychological claims to the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba among paramedics and fire paramedics, with 236 claims in 2021, up from 132 in 2020 and 148 in 2019. The number slightly decreased to 214 in 2022 and 201 in 2023.

Bilous urged those still struggling to persist in seeking help.

"We're all here for you, and we're all looking out for each other. The days of 'suck it up, buttercup' are long gone,” Bilous said.

Heinbigner will be honored at the Manitoba fallen firefighters memorial in Winnipeg on September 28 and at the International Association of Fire Fighters memorial in the U.S. in 2025.