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New laws aid first responders suffering post‑traumatic stress, bolster firefighter peer support

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two bills into law Tuesday boosting mental health aid to California’s firefighters and other first responders.

The bills add post-traumatic stress disorder as an injury for workers’ compensation claims for law enforcement and firefighters and create stronger peer support programs for firefighters.

“The job of firefighters and first responders can be very rewarding but, at the same time, extremely unpredictable,” Newsom said in a press release. “These bills are meant to ensure they have access to resources and help in their time of need, in the same way they assist their communities when they need them most.”

Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre said the bills are a welcome step in the industry’s need to have job stress recognized as leading to work-related injuries and health issues.

“We do see a lot of stuff other people don’t see, and are faced with a lot of stresses and traumas,” Akre said. “We need to have the tools to deal with them.”

In the last few weeks Sonoma County calls included firefighters and police officers going to a Santa Rosa home where they tried to revive a baby boy who died, a recent crash with major injuries to a 10‑year‑old child. Fires this week in the west county involved the death of Santa Rosa man and grave burns to an Occidental man. Two years ago, the October 2017 fires had responders in Sonoma County battled overwhelming blazes in several areas at once and evacuating neighborhoods as fires raged close by.

Tim Aboudara, Santa Rosa firefighter and president of Santa Rosa Firefighters Local 1401, called the laws long overdue and landmark legislation.

“We’re very hopeful and optimistic it will make the path easier for people to get the help they need,” Aboudara said. “The goal of both of these programs is to get people to be aware of the likelihood of some kind of stress injury in their career, to recognize it, get help and not have it become career ending.”

SB 542 will provide first responders with workers’ compensation if they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was supported by several police, firefighter and mental health unions and advocates, including the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and California Professional Firefighters, who co-sponsored the bill.

A second bill, AB 1116, establishes statewide standards for peer support programs directed toward firefighters, including guaranteeing confidentiality for those who seek counseling with peers. Peer support is a common tool offered by public agencies in recent years but hasn’t been standard from agency to agency.

These bills come at a time when suicides among first responders are out‑pacing on-duty deaths, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on disability inclusion.

“Every day, we ask firefighters and law enforcement officers to run into flames and gunfire — but too often, when the weight of these traumas becomes too much for these heroes to bear, we turn a blind eye to their struggles,” said SB 542 author Sen. Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park. “Today, California is making clear that post-traumatic stress is not a disorder to be stigmatized. These injuries can be healed.”

A third bill Newsom signed was SB 438, which prohibits public agencies from outsourcing their local emergency dispatch services to for-profit entities.

This article includes information from Staff Writers Randi Rossmann and Chantelle Lee as well as the Sacramento Bee.

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