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Proposed bill prioritizes firefighter mental health

U.S. Representative Andrea Salinas (OR-06) introduced the Peer Support for Firefighters Act, legislation that would prioritize mental and behavioral health support for firefighters under federal law, on Jan. 22.

“Firefighters put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities. Sadly, many firefighters and first responders suffer from depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues due to the difficult and traumatic nature of their work,” said Salinas. 

“Peer support programs are a great tool for high stress professions like firefighting because they offer a chance to talk to someone who understands exactly what you’re going through. That’s why I’m so proud to introduce the Peer Support for Firefighters Act in Congress. My bill would establish the importance of peer support programs under federal law and ensure more firefighters can get the help they deserve.”

From 2014 to 2020, more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty. Yet recent studies have shown that 92% of firefighters are unwilling to seek help for mental health problems due to stigma. Peer support groups can help break down barriers in close-knit professions like firefighting and allow participants to feel more comfortable talking about behavioral health challenges.   

Fire departments can already obtain federal funding for a variety of equipment, training, and other needs through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, this legislation would explicitly include peer support programs as AFG-eligible activities, essentially codifying the need to address mental health and substance use disorders among firefighters under federal law.

The Peer Support for Firefighters Act is cosponsored by U.S. Representative Jill Tokuda (HI-02).

“I am proud to join my friend and colleague, Rep. Salinas, in introducing this important bill to address the mental and behavioral health needs of firefighters,” said Tokuda . “Every day, firefighters put themselves in harm’s way to save lives and respond to crises, such as the devastating fires on Maui.”

The legislation is also endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Council on Mental Illness (NAMI), NAMI Oregon, Oregon Fire Chiefs Association, and Oregon State Fire Fighters Council.

“Each day, our brave firefighters put their lives at risk to help their neighbors during times of need,” said Hannah Wesolowski, Chief Advocacy Officer, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Rep. Salinas’ Peer Support for Firefighters Act will help grow a mental health peer support network led by fellow firefighters who can help their colleagues deal with the unique challenges and stressors they face. NAMI is proud to support the Peer Support for Firefighters Act.”

“The Oregon Fire Chiefs Association strongly supports the Peer Support for Firefighters Act because, while firefighters tirelessly serve our communities, our nation’s firefighters experience significant mental and emotional challenges while serving our communities and rescuing those in peril,” said  Chris Heppel, President, Oregon Fire Chiefs Association. “The exposure to traumatic events, the physical demands of the job, and the need to maintain constant vigilance can take a toll on their mental health. 

“Fellow firefighters trained as peer supporters have proven effective in providing front line care to those experiencing chronic stress and acute crisis. The Peer Support for Firefighters Act will ensure that, with Assistance to Firefighter Grant funding, the American fire service will be able to care for those who serve.” 

“Our appreciation and support of Congresswoman Andrea Salinas’ bill adding peer support to the list of eligible grant areas in the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program administered by DHS and FEMA, said Karl Koenig, president, Oregon State Fire Fighters Council. “Mental health wellness and training keeps our fire fighters prepared to deal with the stresses involved with providing first response fire protection and EMS services, which will be critical moving forward.”

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