Fire department ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues
Published Thursday, March 26, 2015 6:01PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 26, 2015 6:46PM EDT
Police and paramedics are often overwhelmed by mental health calls, but it's a problem that burns up the London Fire Department's resources as well.
Unsupervised and unsupported, residents grappling with mental health issues are increasingly putting their lives - and others' - at risk.
London may be the only city in Ontario where a fire inspector dedicates half of his hours to tracking hoarders - ensuring homes are flagged in case of fire and attempting to help residents get the care they need.
But firefighters and fire inspectors aren't trained in mental health care, which means they can see, log and identify a problem, but can do little to stop it from getting worse.
On a regular basis, Insp. James Hind will be climbing over piles of clothes, avoiding buckets with mystery liquids and meandering through trash.
"For the people who live like this, this is normal, this is life," he says.
Hind tracks hoarders for the London Fire Department.
"If I had to put a number on it, I'd say half my time is spent dealing with hoarding. In this place here, if a fire started, it's going to envelop this place within seconds - and it doesn't matter if you're able-bodied or have low mobility, you're not going to get out in time. When we come across these people, they generally live in multi-unit dwellings and that creates a ripple effect because if they start a fire, it's certainly going to impact many other people."
In 2010 a fire started on a hoarder's Toronto balcony and displaced thousands of residents. And in 2007 a fire in a hoarder's London apartment became fatal when the victim couldn't get out.
Hind says, "Any time that I find a house or a property where there's hoarding, we make sure that we track it so we know where we may need to send additional resources, because they are completely different fires."
But when Hind tries to get these individuals help he often hits a brick wall. He can't force them to seek support, he can only encourage it.
"Our legislation hasn't caught up with the mental health side of things, it still deals with the building, it doesn't necessarily deal with the people who are causing the issue," he says.
And those that do seek help, wait a long time, says Don Seymour of the Canadian Mental Health Association - Middlesex.
"Right now our waiting list for intensive case management can be as long as six months."
That's about the same wait time for in-home visits by an Assertive Community Treatment Team - 172 days for the Sout West LHIN - and it's about two months longer than the provincial average of 108 days.
If they need support within housing - it's another six month wait - putting the South West LHIN in the middle of the pack for wait times for those services*:
- Erie St. Clair LHIN - 15 days
- Toronto Central LHIN - 39 days
- North East LHIN - 73 days
- North Simcoe Muskoka LHIN - 79 days
- South West LHIN - 187 days
- Mississauga Halton LHIN - 201 days
- North West LHIN - 204 days
- Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant LHIN - 205 days
- Central East LHIN - 356 days
- Champlain LHIN - 362
- South East LHIN - 389 days
- Waterloo Wellington LHIN - 595 days
- Central West LHIN - 781 days
- Central LHIN - 896 days
*Average wait time during third fiscal quarter of 2014.
"Those with the most complex needs, if they're looking for community supports, it could be a waiting list of three to five years - that's not an exaggeration," Seymour adds.
Often they find another solution, he says, "The default again is these unlicenced homes, so people with fairly complex needs are in these places and they don't have the supports they need."
Places like illegal group homes on Clarke Road where the living conditions were so poor that London Fire issued an "immediate threat to life" order and evacuated some of the residents.
Or the group home on Oxford Street where 30 people suffering from mental illness or addictions were displaced, after a fire tore through the building killing one resident.
Seymour says, "What happened at that apartment building was a system failure and we all have to take some ownership of that."
An additional $2 million in funding for each Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) for treatment programs and supportive housing was recently announced.
But Seymour says, "$2 million isn't enough. We all know that. It will make a dent, but it's not enough."
Which is why Hind's list of hoarding properties continues to grow and firefighters battle more fires involving people with mental illnesses.
"The system makes it very easy for people to fall through the cracks and get missed," Hind says.
Coming up in part four: Where many of those without options end up and how a not-for-profit with the tools and expertise to help fill many service gaps and make better use of resources is being used by very few governmental agencies.