When first responders are doing well physically and mentally, the community is a safer place.
That's according to Bakersfield Fire Battalion Chief Casey Snow, who said when he and his fellow firefighters are in good mental health, they're better equipped to help out and make a difference in Bakersfield.
"Wellness for firefighters is very important," Snow said.
And after Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 1 signed into law three bills focusing on first responders' mental health, firefighters and law enforcement officers alike will have more resources to ensure their mental health is a priority.
The California Firefighter Peer Support and Crisis Referral Services Act establishes statewide standards for first responder peer support programs. Peer support can include support on topics such as substance use and substance abuse; stress related to a a recent incident; grief; family issues; and injuries acquired in the line of duty.
The Trauma Treatment Act, the second bill signed into law by Newsom, will provide first responders with workers' compensation while they recover from mental health-related issues in instances where they may suffer stress-related illnesses from working.
The third law will prohibit a public agency from outsourcing its local emergency dispatch services to a private, for-profit entity to preserve the highest and best level of emergency response for the community it serves, the law states.
All three laws are intended to improve protections about mental health and post-traumatic stress for first responders.
What trauma looks like
What's unique about first responders is the frequency with which they face traumatic events.
Veronica Munoz, disaster coordinator for Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, said the average person will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
"The difference in first responders is every hour of their day is filled with traumatic events," Munoz said. "While their symptoms may look a lot like (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), they don’t always pay attention to them because it’s part of their normal day-to-day lifestyle."'
These symptoms include:
- Difficulty managing emotions
- Substance use
- Suicidal ideations or thoughts
It is important to note that everyone responds to trauma differently — there is no "one size fits all" reaction or response, Munoz said.
"Some of the incidents we respond to are very stressful, and that stress can carry over to our members' professional and personal lives," Snow said. "As a department, we see it’s important to be aware of this."
This is why BFD already has in place an employee assistance program through the city of Bakersfield for the department to use, and the department has already taken steps to get more peer support for its staff, Snow said.
Bakersfield Police Sgt. Nathan McCauley said BPD has been "quite proactive" in its approach to mental health concerns. BPD has a peer support program available to officers 24/7 as well as external counseling services. Officers have also gone through wellness training that covers a variety of mental health concerns and coping techniques, McCauley said.
"It has become a point of emphasis and part of the culture within our organization that we look after one another when it comes to recognizing signs of stress, and look to provide assistance before the problem grows too big," McCauley said. "We also have certain kinds of traumatic incidents that are tracked by the organization to keep us aware as a department of the amount of exposure our officers have to these incidents."
Angela Monroe, spokeswoman for the Kern County Sheriff's Office, said KCSO has multiple resources available for deputies. The employee assistance program provides counseling and other services to deputies who need them, and the Critical Incident Stress Management program provides deputies with resources after incidents that could be traumatic or stressful, Monroe said. KCSO also has a peer support group for deputies, she said.
'It's OK to seek help, and recovery is possible'
The reaction among first responders to these new California's new laws has been positive.
For BPD, the Trauma Treatment Act will assist officers suffering from PTSD to get the help they need in a more efficient way, McCauley said.
"The mental health of our officers is always going to be something we are concerned with as an organization," McCauley said. "If an officer has an issue with PTSD that requires a worker’s comp claim, the easier that process is to get them assistance, the better."
Snow mirrored McCauley's sentiment, focusing on the the California Firefighter Peer Support and Crisis Referral Services Act and its potential to help BFD's firefighters.
"I can say with a lot of confidence that our members are very supportive of it," Snow said. "As a department, we see it’s important to be aware of this and to have members who can assist or have professionals who can help with stress debriefing."
Munoz also recognized how important and influential the passage of these three laws will be in the recovery of first responders who have experienced multiple traumatic events.
"I think it will assist in normalizing and bringing to the forefront the importance of mental health for our first responders," Munoz said. "Mental health is very important to their overall wellbeing. It’s OK to seek help, and recovery is possible."