Mental health in first responders becoming a priority

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that in 2017, more firefighters and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty.

The same study found that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression have been found at a rate as much as five times higher in firefighters and police officers than the general public.

Firefighters and police officers never know what a day on the job will bring.

But when they take off their uniform for the day, the trauma can stick with them.

"Law enforcement, firefighters as we know are routinely subjected to some very, very traumatic situations almost on a day to day basis. Not always, especially in rural areas, but when these do happen of course they have a cumulative affect," said Rep. Warren Petryk.

A bi-partisan bill is going through the Wisconsin legislature, Assembly Bill 569.

It would give firefighters and police officers up to 32 weeks of workers compensation, if they are diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed doctor.

At the Eau Claire Fire Department, mental health has been a focus for the last few years.

"Good mental health is something that is being talked about a lot with the fire service in recent years. It is something that is recognized that we need to focus on. Just like our physical health, we have to focus on our mental health," said Deputy Chief Allyn Bertrang.

Bertrang has been a key figure in implementing different programs within the department to address mental health.

Some of which include a peer support program, debriefings after intense calls, and a chaplain program.

"First of all it's a good quality of life for the person themselves, we want people to be healthy and happy and lead a good life both at work and outside of work. But it also is very beneficial for the organization to have our personnel healthy," said Bertrang.

For the 91 men and women that work at the Eau Claire Fire Department, and thousands of other police officers and firefighters across the state, they say it's time for a bigger emphasis on their whole health.

"It's obviously on people's radar and it's something that we've been much more aware of then we ever have in the past," said Petryk.

Rep. Petryk says the bill did get a hearing in the state assembly and is hopeful the state senate will have a hearing on it as well.

He adds there is a possibility that EMS personnel could get added to the bill as well.