The Weymouth firefighter union’s “Heroes Need Heroes, Too” campaign comes as state lawmakers consider legislation to help first responders suffering from PTSD.
WEYMOUTH, MA—Firefighters have launched a campaign to raise awareness about on-duty trauma and to push for first responders to have access to disability benefits after receiving a PTSD diagnosis.
Legislation on Beacon Hill would protect first responders battling PTSD caused by on-the-job trauma.
Weymouth’s International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1616 launched the “The Heroes Need Heroes, Too” campaign to address the stigma associated with mental health, particularly among first responders. The union released a video discussing PTSD, the legislation and the backlash from town officials they say those suffering have faced.
Lt. Kevin McNiff, president of IAFF Local 1616, said firefighters deal with traumatizing situations that can leave a lasting impact.
“Like every department in the state, we’ve had to deal with the repercussions and issues of PTSD due to the things we see on a daily basis,” he said. “With some of the calls and incidents — it’s no surprise that down the road members have to deal with the effects of the tragedies we witness.”
McNiff said PTSD is a hazard of the job and should be treated as such.
“We’re trying to erase the stigma that it’s just part of the job and to suck it up. It’s not something you can just bottle up and hope it goes away,” he said. “It’s like any other injury. If you break your leg, you don’t sit around and hope it heals. You get it treated.”
About 20 percent of firefighters and first responders in the United States deal with post-traumatic stress disorder at some point, compared to 6.8 percent for the general population, according to a study cited by the International Association of Fire Fighters.
McNiff said state and international firefighters unions have made a big effort in recent years to let members know what resources are available and to encourage early treatment.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association said in a letter to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Service that it “strongly opposes” the bill because it would be very costly for communities and eat away at available funding for other services. Instead, the association supports a bill creating a commission to study the impacts of PTSD.
“Having a better understanding of the prevalence of the diseases at issue, the main causes of these diseases in Massachusetts, best practices for treatment, and the costs associated with treatment, among other factors, remains essential before costs are blindly thrust on municipalities and taxpayers,” the letter read.
In the video released as part of the campaign, Lt. Jay Bailey said Weymouth Fire Chief Keith Stark has used firefighters’ calls for help against them, which undermines their trust in the system.
When asked to elaborate on the issue, McNiff said there have been issues in the past with Stark’s “handling of information regarding treatment.”
“We’re in discussions with the town to address the issue and put protocols in place so that our members feel comfortable utilizing the system and there isn’t any fear of how information may be used,” he said.
Stark said PTSD is a real issue in the fire service, and he has dealt with trauma himself as a firefighter.
“I’ve always supported any firefighters coming to me to ask for any type of help,” he said. “I want them to live healthy lives and have long careers on the Weymouth Fire Department.”
Stark said firefighters have access to help through On-Site Academy, which helps first responders recover from traumatic experiences, and he calls in a critical incident stress management team following any tragedy.
“It’s unfortunate that the union chose this topic of firefighters’ mental health for a personal attack on me,” he said. “I’ve always encouraged firefighters to ask for help.”