New Florida law will help firefighters with PTSD

ACFR Chaplin and Peer Support Coordinator, Robert Smith

One call and you must drop everything and go. Responding to one call after another, firefighters have seen it all.

"Unfortunately a couple of years ago I had two pediatric cardiac arrest. It was very tough," Alachua County Fire Rescue Lt. Jennifer Blakeney said. "I have a child right around the same age so it really makes you think about your own kids.”

Alachua County Fire Chaplin Robert Smith said their goal is to serve, whether it's fighting the biggest fires or breaking devastating news to a family.

"Not only do you see it but you see the family dealing with it also so it’s a very heavy burden," Smith said.

That can take a toll on their mental health. A report released last month by the U.S. Fire Administration states firefighters and law enforcement are more likely to die by suicide than a line of duty death.

"Over the years of working fire rescue I've noticed and seen the emotional toll it’s taken on myself and my employees," Smith said.

In 2017, suicide accounted for a reported 103 firefighter deaths in the country and researchers believe only 40% of the suicides are reported. bringing that number to 250.

Agencies like Alachua County Fire Rescue wanted to make a difference so they started a program called peer support.

The 10 member peer support team talks to first responders after they’ve been dispatched to a serious or fatal call.

"We get put out of service right after the call from the ER, we go back to the station for about an hour to just sit back and reflect on what happened make sure we are all doing all day," Blakeney said.

But Blakeney said it wasn’t like this until recently. She said they used to respond straight to another call right after a call that may have been traumatic.

"When you go to that next call and you’re not giving that patient your full attention because you’re still thinking about the bad pediatric call you may have had," Blakeney said.

However, starting October 1st, more help will be provided. The Florida Legislature just passed a new law that will help fire rescue state-wide.

"It started with some spouses that came out to Tallahassee, one spouse's husband responded to the pulse night club shooting and was traumatized," Florida Senator Keith Perry said.

The law helps firefighters with PTSD, and provides workers compensation if they need time off. Then the firefighter is referred to a licensed psychiatrist for further review.

"If that mental or emotional issue relates to 1 of 11 call types that they’ve responded to in the last year, then workers compensation covers their care and treatment until they get through that situation," ACFR Deputy Chief Harold Theus said.

Before, workers compensation only covered physical injuries and as much as these fire fighters are tough and physical emotional stability is a key factor when saving others.

“It’s okay to somewhat talk about your feelings even though you’re a firefighter," Blakeney said. “It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation...not everyone goes through or sees what we see.”

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