The IAFF supports the Helping Emergency Responders Overcome (HERO) Act and encourages members of Congress to cosponsor the bill.
House: HR 1646, the Helping Emergency Responders Overcome Act of 2019
Sponsor: Representative Ami Bera (D-CA)
Summary: The Helping Emergency Responders Overcome Act of 2019 provides resources to increase recognition and treatment of PTS among emergency responders, provides grants to educate and develop peer counselors and collects data on suicides occurring among emergency responders.
Fire fighters and emergency medical responders are routinely eyewitnesses to scenes of catastrophic incidents involving severe injuries, tragic loss of human life and property loss. The cumulative effects of these exposures on emergency personnel may result in psychological injuries and even suicides.
Only in recent years has the fire service begun to recognize the link between these professional experiences and post-traumatic stress (PTS) and related behavioral health conditions. Many fire departments lack the capabilities to assist fire fighters by providing counseling, support services and coping tools necessary to treat those suffering from PTS and co-occurring disorders.
In the absence of specialized treatment, some fire fighters and emergency medical responders engage in increasingly harmful behaviors including substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. For many, this suffering is a private affair often kept from co-workers, friends and family. Additionally, there is currently not an existing means to accurately capture data regarding the incidences of fire fighter and emergency medical responder suicide.
The Helping Emergency Responders Overcome (HERO) Act would help address these insufficiencies by identifying best practices to identify, prevent and treat PTS among fire fighters and emergency medical responders. Specifically, the Act will establish a grant program to provide peer-counseling programs for fire fighters and emergency medical personnel, require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop resources for mental health professionals to better understand the culture of the fire service and evidence-based therapies for mental health issues common to public safety officers, and direct the Centers for Disease Control to collect data on suicides among public safety officers.
Fire fighters are at significant risk for PTS
- Fire fighters and emergency medical responders routinely experience high stress at chaotic and uncontrolled settings for significant periods. While operating in stressful environments, fire fighters and emergency medical responders engage in critical rescue and life-saving activities, which are not always successful. Fire fighter and emergency medical responders experiencing multiple traumatic events have a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress (PTS).
- Up to one-third of fire fighters and emergency medical responders will demonstrate some or all of the criteria used to diagnose PTS. The rates of diagnosed PTS among fire fighters and emergency medical responders vary due to inconsistencies in data collection methods and standards. However, reported rates are between 16% and 37%.
- Studies have demonstrated rates of PTS in fire fighters are comparable to other similarly situated high-stress occupations, such as police officers and military combat veterans.
The HERO Act will help us better recognize, educate, prevent and treat PTS in fire fighters
- Peer-support behavioral health and wellness programs within fire departments will allow trained peer counselors to conduct outreach to fire fighters and their families to assist with issues associated with post-traumatic stress, substance abuseand co-related conditions.
- New guidance for fire departments and other emergency response departments will help educate on how to better identify and prevent PTS and co-occurring disorders in public safety officers. Meanwhile, new resources to mental health providers will provide for a better understanding of the culture of fire departments and evidence-based therapies for mental health issues common in the profession.
- Establishing a specialized database capturing incidences of suicide among fire fighters and other public safety officers will provide scientists with detailed information regarding emergency responder suicides on a national scale, allowing researchers to more fully examine and understand PTS and broader mental health concerns among fire fighters and other public safety officers.
Peer support is effective
- Peer support programs have been demonstrated to be an effective method for providing mental health support to occupational groups, including fire fighters. The role of a peer support worker complements but does not duplicate or replace the roles of therapists, case managers or other members of a treatment team.
- Peer support programs train fire fighters to approach an individual of concern, establish trust and confidentiality, determine whether a crisis is developing, refer the person to available resources and educate others about behavioral health.
- Peer support offers a level of acceptance, understanding and validation not found in many other professional relationships. By sharing their own personal experience and practical guidance, peer support providers promote connection and inspire hope, leading to better outcomes.