Bill would provide counseling for first responders

Firefighter in distress. Photo courtesy: Glatfelter Insurance Group

First responders are frequently the first on the scene when dangerous or difficult situations arise.

These responsibilities, while important to the entire community, can be extremely taxing on first responders and, over time, put them at risk of trauma.

Because they are constantly exposed to high-stress situations and work long strenuous hours, they are prone to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.

In a study, firefighters were found to have higher rates of attempts and thoughts of suicide than the general population ( Stanley et al., 2016 ).   Every year, between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide, according to statistics ( Badge of Life, 2016 ).

Florida State Representative Vicki L. Lopez has introduced House Bill 169 – titled “Licensed Counseling for First Responders.” If passed, employers of first responders will be obligated to cover counseling costs under this bill. Additionally, this bill will prohibit employers from demanding that first responders take time off to attend counseling sessions.

Danny Mullen, a Rhode Island native, shared an unforgettable moment he had with others on a forum on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website to raise awareness about suicide among first responders.

While driving on a bridge, he passed a vehicle pulled over on the side of the road with its hazard lights flashing.

“As I passed by, a gentleman got out of the passenger side of the vehicle, stepped over the railing, and jumped,” Mullen said.

He later learned a chilling discovery that the victim was a police officer.

“My friend’s husband, who answered the 911 call, informed me that the gentleman was a police officer.”

While suicide rates in the general population are regularly tracked, rates among firefighters, EMTs, and police officers are consistently underreported, according to experts.

According to studies, first responders are often hesitant to seek assistance and use the resources that organizations provide.

According to Kaiser Permanente, a recent survey found that 57% of first responders had worried about the negative consequences of asking for assistance. In comparison, 47% had mentioned a concern about being demoted or dismissed.

Requiring employers to provide counseling services rather than requiring first responders to seek their own help could encourage them and also, on the other side, raise awareness of the suicide rate among first responders.

The Governmental Oversight is currently reviewing this bill and Accountability Committee, and a similar version of the bill is being reviewed in the Senate. If passed, the bill will go into effect on July 1.