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Maine Firefighters Back Bill to Support First Responders with PTSD

Andy O’Brien
19 Dec, 2021
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As any firefighter, police officer or other first responder can tell you, there are times when they have to respond to a tragic situation that affects them so deeply that it leaves a scar. Fatal fires, car accidents, tragic situations involving children are all part of the job and it’s common for these incidents to take a toll on one’s mental and emotional health. 

In 2017, the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine (PFFM) and the Maine AFL-CIO helped pass a state law, sponsored by then State Rep. Jared Golden, requiring that when fire fighters, EMTs and police officers develop post-traumatic stress disorder, the burden of proof is on the employer to prove that the condition is not work related. Since then, corrections officers and emergency dispatchers have also been added to the list of qualifying workers. However, this so-called “rebuttable presumption” law is set to sunset in October 2022 and PFFM and the Maine AFL-CIO are working on a bill for this coming legislative session that would make the law permanent.

Ronnie Green of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, who is a member of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board, said the good news is that workers’ comp costs have not gone up even though there have been more filings from workers suffering PTSD.

“The law is doing exactly what it was intended to do,” said Green. “It was not for a bunch of guys and gals to win workers’ comp claims because they have PTSD and never have to work again. The long term goal of the law is to reduce the stigma and create more visibility and understanding of what PTSD is so it can be treated earlier. PTSD is an injury and it’s really no different than breaking your ankle. If you treat it early and correctly you can recover from it.”

In the past 20 years, PFFM has begun taking the mental health of its members very seriously. Whenever an emergency crew finds themselves in a traumatic situation, there are now professionals on the site to debrief and support first responders.

“20 years ago, we wouldn’t have done that. It would have just been part of the job,” said Green. “You go to work, you see dead bodies, dead babies and all of this really traumatizing stuff and you go home at the end of your shift. We don’t do it that way anymore.”

For example, a firefighter who is normally a good employee might start showing up late for work, kicking a chair across the room or calling the chief an expletive. Green says in those situations the workers might ordinarily get harshly disciplined, but the union can now work with the member to identify what is causing the outbursts, which may be due to trauma experienced on the job, and instead help get them help.

“Fortunately, now that more and more firefighter/paramedics are reporting these issues, we can set them up with critical incidence counselors who specialize in PTSD in first responders,” said Green. “We’ve had many success stories. In one recent instance, we put a guy through some pretty intense outpatient treatment and now he’s a model citizen.”

Stay tuned for more information on how you can support this bill this legislative session.