SWVA firefighter advocating for bill to protect mental health of first responders

Virginia
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A Southwest Virginia firefighter is advocating for a new bill to provide more resources to first responders when it comes to mental health in an effort to lower their suicide rate.

It’s called the H.E.R.O. Act Bill, which stands for Helping Emergency Responders Overcome.

“In the last five years, I’ve lost two first responders. One of them was my best friend and another one was a co-worker,” said Jonathan Smith.

Smith lost his friends as the result of suicide and now he’s created the group “Putting a Dent in Mental Health” to help save others.

“Over the past couple of decades it’s always been, ‘You signed up for this job, you knew what you were getting into.’ And that’s created a stigma, and we’re hoping us creating awareness, will help break that stigma,” Smith said.

Recently the group joined forces other national agencies, like the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to advocate for the H.E.R.O. Act bill. The bill would develop a peer counseling program within organizations and it would also establish a database to keep a record of emergency responder suicides.

“I’d be the first one to tell you I didn’t think this day would be here this quick,” Smith said. “I would suspect one of two years down the road. And to be able to team up with national agencies and to work on a national level this soon has really been a huge inspiration.”

Smith took a trip to Washington DC last week to meet with staff members of Senators and U.S. Representatives to gain support for the bill.

One of the lawmakers he met with was a staff member for Senator Mark Warner. In a statement, Warner said:

“First responders put their lives on the line every day for their community. Due to the nature of their jobs, they encounter traumatic situations on a near-daily basis. We’ve got to make sure they’re provided with the mental health resources they need to cope with these experiences.”

All work that Roanoke Blacksburg Regional Airport Public Safety Chief Ben Cook says is necessary.

“This awareness and this stuff being brought up will get more resources to people who need it. And make us more aware of what to look for in our folks who are trying to deal with it on their own,” said Chief Cook.

Chief Cook says in most cases someone comes into the field and hasn’t really seen what they deal with.

“All of a sudden they are thrust into an environment where there is bleeding and casualties and incidents and stuff that are of a magnitude they just haven’t seen. So they’re not used to processing that.”

He says the weight of what they deal with can also build up and become overwhelming, which makes getting help for mental health very important. 

The bill failed in the Congress last year, so now they are adding more details to help it pass it this year. Smith’s group worked with the other national agencies to get the bill revised so they can try again this year.

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