VANCOUVER -- The stressful nature of being a first responder has become even more apparent amid a pandemic that puts those on the front lines at greater risk — so a charity is raising money to offer free counselling online.

The B.C. Burn Fund has received $5,500 so far in its Resilience Without Barriers fund to cover the cost of sessions that can help first responders weather the stress of fighting an invisible disease.

"When we get those calls, whether it's for an overdose or influenza-like symptoms, our stress is heightened for sure," said Steve Farina, a Coquitlam firefighter who is also a vice-president of the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association, which operates the fund.

"It's important to take a knee, share our stories," said Farina. "We're affected by this as well and we need support as well."

Some paramedics have isolated themselves from their own family members in the hopes they won't pass the coronavirus on. At least a dozen prison guards have become infected at Mission Institution, where one inmate died. Two Vancouver Police Department officers have fallen ill.

Workers have been more successful in obtaining personal protective equipment, though recent shortages they keep a close eye on supply.

And whereas before the pandemic, members of the public and their children would have happily chatted with and shared support of first responders in the community, that's happening less now as people in those jobs are seen as being at risk.

"It dehumanizes you a little bit," he said. "It puts you behind a mask and equipment. People are finding they can't connect with you as well on a human level."

A 2017 survey found that 44.5 per cent of public safety personnel showed symptoms of mental health issues including depression and PTSD, compared to only about 10 per cent of the general population.

WorkSafeBC has changed some policies designed to reduce extra stress from the pandemic, including announcing it will presume any claims from first responders related to COVID-19 are work-related.

Increasing telemedicine options could provide more options for workers who can't get close to in-person counsellors, said Matt Johnston, who co-founded the online counselling platform, called First Responder Health.

"First responders tend to be very good at compartmentalizing work and personal life," he said. "But if you're a carrier we don't know what kind of impact that will have on our loved ones. We're not used to dealing with invisible stressors in our regular world."

He said the counsellors are specifically trained to understand the unique stressful situations of first responders.

The Burn Fund says donations totalling $105 can provide one hour of counselling. Farina said he is hoping to raise $25,000 or more.

"Your worst day is our every day," Farina said. "That can take its toll."