Forum: State PTSD bill is misguided
Editor’s note: This Forum was posted Feb. 24 in the New Haven Register.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is real and a bill before the Connecticut legislature, while well-intentioned, is misguided in the mechanisms to protect firefighters.
Stress from traumatic events impact all professions where danger and death is prevalent.
This bill says it would require worker’s compensation coverage for first responders “suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of witnessing the death of a human being or the immediate aftermath of such death.”
The bill can be revised to ensure firefighters do not suffer in silence while not passing down to our municipalities another unfunded mandate.
PTSD is treatable and firefighters who perform hazardous duty need a road to recovery, not one to early retirement.
The worker’s compensation system is not set up for mental health.
Under this bill, firefighters would be required to be evaluated by clinicians that have no background or training in PTSD.
Firefighters would have to sit in a waiting room in isolation from peers, hampering the no-cost positive steps labor and management has put into place.
Unfortunately, this legislation is the equivalent of a hobby horse, at first glance it appears to be moving forward, only a closer look reveals it is equally moving backwards by failing to provide early intervention through no-cost policies and procedures and opening the door to potential abuse.
New Haven Fire Department should serve as a model.
We are the busiest all-hazards department in the state. Our members recognize as a professional firefighter they will be exposed to some of the worst things humanity can offer.
There is not a week that goes by in which firefighters do not witness some horrific event, be it a homicide, overdose, fatal fire, child abuse or a motor vehicle accident that requires extrication. Responding to those in need is our core mission.
However, we are not superheroes, we are ordinary people (your neighbors, friends and family) who do extraordinary things.
In New Haven, labor works with management to provide members support after any tragic event. The Employee Assistance Program is sent to firehouses of the companies affected. This can be activated by the union or any chief officer.
For larger incidents, we coordinate on-duty companies to rotate them to the training academy to visit with EAP.
Our EAP team (Behavioral Health Consultants, LLC) provides peer support training for firefighters including members from eight departments.
These teams are made up of trained firefighters who volunteer their time or are sent while on duty to support neighboring departments. This is a reciprocal relationship that is budget neutral.
New Haven utilizes EAP clinicians and peer support in tandem, these sessions occur in group or in private.
Enlightened chiefs and mayors support the use of these teams. Mayor Maturo of East Haven and Chief Jackson recently sent Deputy Chief PJ Norwood to provide peer support for our members knowing that Mayor Harp and Chief Alston would reciprocate when needed.
Unfortunately, not every chief or mayor is committed to employee health. There is still a stigma that serves as a barrier to having firefighters ask for early help.
When departments fail to initiate early intervention, some employees will get lost, leading to more complicated issues including, absenteeism, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide.
This failure of leadership results in a high cost to the organization and the taxpayers. Early intervention is also the key to better employee health while minimizing lost time and reducing the number of visits to EAP.
There are inherent limitations when looking at studies as they don’t extract out firefighters and they don’t note delivery of early treatment.
However, we know from our personal experience and our EAP provider that the anecdotal data strongly suggests that early intervention is the key to success for firefighters. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that 42 percent of those who entered the program required three to 10 sessions.
Connecticut’s Operating Engineers has instituted the early intervention model with great success. This program is led by Health & Safety Director Zimmer.
In the past few years there have been three deaths on construction sites in our city. By providing peer support for workers and a pathway to treatment they reduced lost time and took care of workers.
This is where strong leadership and legislation can help by mandating early intervention, peer support, trained EAP counselors who deal with firefighters and increased sessions when needed.
Most EAP programs offer three sessions. We believe this should be increased to eight sessions. Looking at our department in one year, fewer than 2 percent of the work force utilized EAP sessions.
All officer and firefighter training should be required to contain a training component on PTSD.
Any new legislation should track trends and date so policy-makers can review and make necessary adjustments.
It is time for union leaders and state legislatures to work together to put forth common sense reform.
All too often we see a pendulum of injustice that sways from one extreme to another without regard for the unintended consciousness. We are willing to offer reforms that balance interests of employee health and need for city and town leaders to be responsible stewards of budgets.
The state AFL-CIO and the Uniform Professional Fire Fighters would like their members to believe if you’re against this bill then you believe PTSD does not exist.
They attempt in vain to say if you’re against this bill then you’re against firefighters. They employ these tactics to demonize those who disagree with them in an attempt to change the narrative from their flawed legislation to individual personalities. There are new political realities in Hartford and across the country and it is time they should take notice.
When I testified against this bill I heard the excuse this is not the final bill.
How can this be when this is at least the third session the bill has been raised?
Is this the old “we will read it after we pass it?” New Haven firefighters have been on record as opposing the bill for years. I have been told now because of my testimony New Haven firefighters are alone out front for being the only union to publicly expose significant issues with this bill.
My reply is simple: That is what I call leadership.
This week at the Capitol we were supported from firefighters across the state, they were not fooled by empty rhetoric. We were also heartened when Senator Osten reached out to us to serve on the committee for the legislation. I know that with reforms we can have bipartisan support to pass common sense legislation that can work for firefighters, cities and town leaders.
Frank Ricci is president New Haven Fire Fighters, Local 825 IAFF. He is a battalion chief and a contributing author for the Fire Fighters Handbook. He is also an advisory board member Fire Engineering Magazine.