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Mental health resources for first responders

Posted at 10:20 PM, Jun 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-11 23:20:22-04

TULSA -- In the wake of a busy month of May for first responders, it opens the conversation of mental health resources for our local heroes.

"This was probably a once in a career deal for a lot of us," said Assistant Chief Stacy Belk of the Tulsa fire department.

In less than a month, Green Country saw dozens of tornadoes, flash floods, and historic flooding levels.

"All of these incidents kind of compounded on top of each other, there was an exponential increase in call volume," said Matt Lay, a Fire Equipment Operator for the Tulsa fire department.

First responders called out to rescue others, while dealing with their own emergencies.

"We had several of our firefighters that were involved had flooding of their own houses," said Chief Belk.

The job day to day is already stressful, but changing hours to respond to the increase in calls, can take a toll on mental health.

"We went from 24, 48 to 12 on, 12 off," said Chief Belk.

For more than 20 years, the Tulsa fire department has had a program called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team. 18 months ago, they rebranded the peer to peer support group, called Fire to Fire.

"It enabled our members to undergo specific specialized training to identify critical factors and triggers related to mental health and firefighters," said Lay.

Matt Lay, a member of the Tulsa Firefighters Association, supported House Bill 2271 in the last session. Under this bill, Oklahoma first responders with the likelihood of working incidents that may cause PTSD or mental health disorders, can receive care related to a job connected injury.

"In 2017 data showed us there were actually more fatalities related to suicide by firefighters than related to line of duty deaths," said Lay.

The bill passed the House, but the session ended before it was heard in the Senate.

"This is a cause we have to address," said Lay.

With the historic flooding, many new first responders experienced this magnitude of emergencies for the first time. On top of that, they're dealing with the stress of balancing work and personal life during these busy times. This event serves as a reminder that the effort for more mental health resources isn't over.

"When you’re here, you’ve got to be here, because this is obviously, just like police, is life or death," said Chief Belk.

House Bill 2271 will have the opportunity to be heard during the next legislative session in January.

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