Legislators address first responders’ mental health, suicide rates
When asked about the Camp Fire, Jesse Alexander doesn’t mention a singular memory. What he says strikes him most is the totality of the disaster, to which he was among the first first responders.
A division chief with the Chico Fire Department, in his 20th year as a firefighter, Alexander headed toward Paradise as the blaze started spreading. He’d wind up seeing the firestorm blow over the Ridge, destroying most of Paradise, as firefighters from numerous agencies doused flames in their attempt to protect evacuating residents.
What sticks with him, he said, is “the magnitude in regards to the overall devastation—home after home, business after business, burned-up vehicle after burned-up vehicle, the damage to the roads. That, slowly compounded, builds on you … the Camp Fire is unique in that I don’t know anybody who wasn’t directly affected.”
When interviewed by National Geographic last Thursday (April 18)—and later that afternoon by the CN&R, in his City Hall office—Alexander found himself choking up unexpectedly. That response isn’t new: Even before November, he said, he’d feel bursts of emotion in unusual instances. For example, a TV commercial with a child, even when the ad doesn’t tug heart strings, may evoke a reaction.
Along with fighting fires, he’s responded to 911 calls at vehicle accidents, shootings, stabbings, fights, rescues and medical emergencies, among others—with victims and loved ones of all ages. The sensory impact lingers.
“Once you see those images, you can’t scrub them out of your head,” Alexander said. “One may not be catastrophic, but it’s the cumulative effect, year after year after year after year.”
Law enforcement officers have similar exposure, plus other stressors. Chico Police Det. Jim Parrott told the CN&R that he thinks officers are able to handle “the day-to-day aspect of our job, the things people perceive [as] stressful,” such as pursuing suspects and experiencing violence. “Some of the other aspects create the cumulative stress,” he continued, mentioning “public scrutiny”—particularly criticism of cellphone videos of citizens’ encounters with police—and intradepartmental issues.
Many in public safety suffer silently. Parrott and Alexander both described compartmentalization in which the officer or firefighter separates work life from personal life.
If buried and ignored, Alexander said, “those accumulations build up” and ultimately release. The most extreme response is suicide.
“Suicide leaves more officers and firefighters dead than the line-of-duty deaths combined,” Adrienne Shilton, government affairs director for the Steinberg Institute, said during a phone interview. A Sacramento nonprofit founded by state-legislator-turned-mayor Darrell Steinberg, the institute advocates for public policies that improve mental health.
Shilton cited research from the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, which matched findings from a study by the nonprofit Ruderman Foundation. The Ruderman report also found that first responders commit suicide at a rate 20 times greater than the general population. In response, the Steinberg Institute has championed a bill in the California Legislature to address the issue.
Senate Bill 542, introduced by Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park), would expand the state workers’ compensation code to include mental health, notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among the conditions presumed to be job-related for first responders.
Currently, a first responder suffering from PTSD must prove the diagnosis relates to his or her work. SB 542 would add mental health to the list of “presumptions of an occupational injury” for public safety officers that includes hernias, heart attacks, cancer and biochemical illness.
Both Parrott, president of the Chico Police Officers’ Association, and Alexander support the bill, which had a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday (April 22). That panel unanimously forwarded SB 542 to its May 22 session for consideration among bills with significant fiscal impact.
They’d also like to see the legislation go a step further and extend the same benefit to dispatchers.
Sheri Marshall and Wendy Gebicke vividly recall the morning of Nov. 8. Marshall, a communications supervisor at the Chico Police Department dispatch center, came off night duty as Gebicke, a 25-year dispatcher, started the day shift. Soon after, Marshall “levitated in my bed” when CodeRED phone alerts beckoned her to return.
“I’ve never experienced anything like what was happening that day,” Gebicke said. “Just the inconceivableness from our end, at how many calls were coming in and how you couldn’t really help people like we normally can.”
“Usually,” Marshall continued, “we have the ability to give them some sort of direction or some kind of guidance….”
But people stuck in cars amid flames, “they want you to send something to make that stop,” Gebicke said, “and you can’t. Towards the end, I just kept saying, ‘Do what you can to protect yourself and pray.’”
Like front-line officers, dispatchers have unsettling memories. Only, in the case of dispatchers, Marshall said, sights come from the mind’s eye—and the images can grow disturbing when, absent the true picture, imagination runs wild.
“The worst part of the job is we don’t get closure,” Gebicke said.
Police and fire officials recognize dispatchers’ place among first responders. Federal lawmakers have started to, as well. Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a former Los Angeles police dispatcher, authored a bill that would “categorize public safety telecommunicators as a protective service occupation.” House Resolution 1629, or the 911 SAVES Act of 2019—Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services—has 35 co-sponsors, Democrats and Republicans. It awaits its first hearing in the House Committee on Education and Labor.
If passed, HR 1629 won’t automatically incorporate dispatchers into SB 542. According to legislative aides in Stern’s Sacramento office, the state also would need to make a comparable amendment to its occupation code. Alternately, SB 542 would need to change during its approval process.
Nonetheless, the dispatchers appreciate progress—as do their colleagues, who see them as more than clerical staff, their current designation.
“The reality is dispatchers should be classified as public safety personnel,” Alexander said. “[As a dispatcher] you hear these things, you’re living through these people’s traumatic things, and the line will just die [when] it gets turned over to us arriving on the scene….
“I probably get a small wisp of what those dispatchers are having to handle.”
Calling SB 542 “a great step in the right direction,” Alexander said he “100 percent supports the bill.” State law enforcement and firefighter groups formally endorse its passage. Most opposition comes from public employer groups such as the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties.
While PTSD already gets considered for workers’ compensation, Parrott said, changing this mental health diagnosis to a presumptive condition “obviously is a benefit to us.” The burden of proof shifts to the employer, refuting the claim, over the employee, validating the claim.
“The difficult issue we face is the time it takes to get that diagnosis,” Parrot continued. “These sort of problems don’t present immediately; sometimes they’re delayed, depending on the accumulated trauma.
“If this legislation somehow streamlines that [process], that’s going to work to our benefit…. And if this just lends itself even to an inertia toward a more serious look at the mental health impacts of the job, then I think we’re going in the right direction.”