Protecting our first responders: The push to make mental health a priority on Beacon Hill

WEYMOUTH, Mass. — Car accidents. Emergency calls. Fires. First responders are on the front lines every day.

“They’re seeing unspeakable horrors that they’re taking home with them every night,” says Kevin McNiff, Union President Local 1616 Weymouth Firefighters.

Lieutenant Jay Bailey is an 18-year veteran of the Weymouth Fire Department and has seen his fair share of heartbreaking calls for help.

“It’s years and years and years of stacking up calls where you put great effort into saving an infant and you fail. Even if you did everything right, even if everyone around you knows you did everything right,” said Bailey.

Research shows that repeated exposure to traumatic events takes a toll, putting firefighters and other first responders at an increased risk for PTSD and suicide.

According to a 2016 study from the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 1 in 5 - or nearly 20% - of firefighters and paramedics face PTSD at least once in their career. That’s compared to 6.8% for the general public’s lifetime risk.

“If you have a bad fire, you get scared. You’re a police officer, you find yourself in a situation where you have to exchange gunfire. Imagine being in a shootout and then having to go to a soccer game the next day? I bet it’s uncomfortable,” said Bailey.

Now, a group of South Shore firefighters hopes to add protections for first responders who are suffering from post-traumatic stress with a proposed law that would classify PTSD as a risk of the job.

“I believe if you have a police officer that has been in a number of gunfights on behalf of his community and he or she says they don’t want to do it anymore, they’ve had enough of those fights, I think we should take care of those people, said Bailey. “What we see, our men and women will get to a certain point and their threshold breaks, and this legislation aims to help those people.”

House Bill 2726 and Senate Bill 1619 is sitting in the Joint Committee of Public Service.

“That would be considered a line of duty injury, just like occupational cancer and heart/lung presumptive,” said Paul Jacques, the Legislative Aide for Professional Firefighters of MA

Jacques took part in a hearing with state lawmakers in July.

“It will provide a peace of mind for our members when they go to work every day in the back of their mind that if, god forbid, something were to happen to them that their families and themselves are taken care of,” stated Jacques.

Even if the law passes, Local 1616 Union President Kevin McNiff says more will need to be done to overcome the stigma surrounding mental health.

“For years, this was stuff it down, it’s part of the job, suck it up,” said McNiff

The International Association of Firefighters found more than 80% of the 7,000 firefighters they surveyed online believe asking for help means they’ll be considered unfit for duty.

“They’re concerned if they get the help it might result in them not being able to return to work, and they’re left with a pension or retirement that’s so small they can’t survive for their families,” said McNiff.

He hopes through education and acceptance, things will change.

“When members get help, they can return to work healthier, they can return to work quicker.”

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