COLUMBUS — An Ohio House committee last week began hearings on State Representative J. Todd Smith’s legislation to support first responders.
The measure, House Bill 291, originated from conversations Smith had with local firefighters, who shared with him their experience and perspective from the frontlines.
“First responders regularly encounter traumatic situations while on the job, including frequent experiences with death,” Smith (R-Farmersville) told members of the House Civil Justice Committee.
Smith explained that the emergencies our first responders encounter on a daily basis take their toll. As a result, industry experts have developed “peer support teams” to help first responders, especially following a major incident.
“Peer support programs are a crucial component of the mental health support system for first responders following a critical incident,” Smith said.
But unlike communications with a doctor or a lawyer, communications between a first responder and a peer recovery supporter are not privileged, which can cause first responders to hesitate when considering whether to seek help.
Smith’s bill would generally provide that a peer recovery supporter cannot testify concerning a communication received from a fellow first responder who receives peer recovery services from the peer recovery supporter, or the supporter’s advice to the first responder.
“Our first responders work on the frontlines each and every day serving our communities, often in dangerous situations,” Smith said. “I believe it’s important we support them in any way we can.”
Smith shared with the committee some sobering statistics from the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters:
· In 2017, nearly 250 first responders committed suicide.
· Suicide rates for firefighters are 20 percent higher than the general population.
· According to a survey of Ohio’s fire and EMS providers, 81 percent have experienced signs or symptoms associated with emotional stress.
· First responders are 50 percent more likely to develop behavioral health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Smith believes House Bill 291 is an important step forward in supporting our first responders.
“This measure will help eliminate any hesitation first responders may have in seeking help and, ultimately, reduce the number of suicides in our communities,” he said.