LANDMARK NEW LAWS ADDRESS POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS AMONG FIREFIGHTERS
Four decades ago, the risk firefighters faced from job-related cancer was only beginning to be understood. Recognizing the health and safety crisis, California stepped up and, with CPF leading the charge, approved the nation’s first cancer-presumption law.
This fall, California again stepped up for firefighters by acting to address the health and safety crisis of the 21st Century: post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI).
Acting on legislation sponsored by CPF, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills that will give California firefighters the strongest PTSI protections in the nation. Senate Bill 542, by state Sen. Henry Stern, creates a workers’ compensation presumption for firefighters who suffer post-traumatic stress injury. The PTSI presumption – one of only a handful in the nation – means that when a firefighter is diagnosed with PTSI, it is presumed to be job-related, unless the employer can prove otherwise.
Perhaps even more historic was Assembly Bill 1116, CPF’s legislation protecting the confidentiality of behavioral health peer counseling services. Authored in the Legislature by Assemblymember Tim Grayson, the bill establishes guidelines for training and implementation of peer counseling for fire departments. Where those programs exist, conversations between peer counselors and their fellow firefighters are considered confidential, a safeguard against their use in disciplinary proceedings.
“Taken together, we believe these two measures give California firefighters the strongest workplace protections in the nation for behavioral health,” said CPF President Brian Rice.
Why It’s a Big Deal
As first responders and emergency medical providers, firefighters are exposed to horrors that few others can imagine. Major fires and calamities, horrific accidents, the quiet torture of working to save a dying child.
These and countless other tragedies accumulate over the career of a firefighter, and they can take their toll. More firefighters die by their own hand than are killed in on-duty incidents. National surveys have suggested that as many as one in three firefighters has contemplated suicide. As many as one in five has diagnosable PTSI. Then there are the less quantifiable effects: substance abuse, family issues, sleep deprivation, depression.
If you are a firefighter, you are, by definition, at risk of suffering some or all of these issues simply because of the job you took.
Over the last three years, CPF has worked to bring the issue of firefighter behavioral health out of the shadows and raise awareness about the issue, both inside and outside of the profession. For front line firefighters, the biggest concern is that, by opening up about the effect of the job, they risk being seen as weak or unfit for the job they love. Even more pressing is the concern that any diagnosis of PTSI could force them off the job without any protection.
CPF’s Behavioral Health Legislative Package addressed both of these concerns. AB 1116 encourages the creation of peer-support teams – firefighters helping firefighters – within departments. “Firefighters are more likely to open up about bad calls when talking with fellow firefighters,” said Rice. “We’ve all been there and we know better than anybody the toll it can take.” But AB 1116 goes further and creates strong confidentiality protection, both for individual firefighters and the peer counselors in whom they confide.