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More mental health support sought for firefighters

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An Alabama lawmaker wants to make it easier for firefighters to talk to their trained peers about traumatic events, PTSD and other mental health issues.

And one lobbying group in Montgomery wants to change how firefighters’ mental health care is covered.

Rep. Tommy Hanes, R-Bryant, says the state lacks the resources to deal with the kind of trauma firefighters see on a daily basis, that is why the peer mentoring is such an important resource.

“More often a firefighter is more inclined to open up with another firefighter that has done the same thing, than they would be opening up to a counselor,” Hanes, a retired firefighter, said.

A 2018 law allows emergency responders, including firefighters, police officers, paramedic and emergency dispatchers, to be certified by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency as “peer support members.” 

Hanes would like firefighters’ certification to be allowed at the Alabama Fire College and regional campuses around the state. He plans to sponsor legislation in the 2020 session to make that change.

“Firefighters right now can go through ALEA to get covered but what we want to do is make it a little bit easier,” Hanes told Alabama Daily News. “So if you have someone who is in the north, or in a corner of the state, they don’t have to drive all the way to Montgomery to get the certification.”

Gene Necklaus is the immediate past president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs and said peer mentoring is about preventing mental health issues from getting worse.

“Our concern is more about the front-end treatment and figuring out if there is a way to address those issues that come up from repeated exposure from traumatic events,” Necklaus told ADN. “We want to focus more on a prevention model than a treatment model.”

Necklaus said the stigma that comes with talking about mental health issues makes it hard to quantify the need for more peer counselors and resources.

“It complicates addressing the issues, because there is this wall of anonymity to these personal type treatments, so it makes it a little harder to legislate and makes it a little harder to put numbers to it,” Necklaus said.

The 2018 House Bill 105 was sponsored by Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, and set up a certified peer mentoring system for emergency responders to help each other deal with traumatic events or any mental health issues. Any emergency responder can become certified to help in traumatic situations and communications with colleagues is confidential.

Greg Cochran, the deputy director of the Alabama League of Municipalities, said that he has been working with Hanes and other stakeholders to develop legislation that would provide more coverage to first responders in dealing with mental health issues.

He said they were looking at legislation to address mental health issues through government-funded treatment rather than worker’s compensation, similar to the the firefighters’ cancer diagnosis bill that passed earlier this year.

Cochran said the new legislation probably won’t be ready until the 2021 legislative session.

Hanes said that since firefighters have to deal with these stressors on a daily basis, this is an issue that needs immediate attention.

“People don’t realize what firefighters go through on a daily basis, the things they see, they come back years later and the things they witness comes back to haunt them,” Hanes said. “It’s really hard on a lot of them.”

The 2020 legislative session begins in February.

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