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Firefighters pushing for more state support for mental health, PTSD

Updated: May. 5, 2021 at 4:42 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Lowcountry and statewide firefighter groups are pushing legislators to open up more funding to address PTSD and other mental illnesses in first responders.

“We see things that the normal person on a daily basis doesn’t see their entire lifetime,” Charleston Firefighters Association Local 61′s Steven Azzarella said.

Azzarella said the pandemic has only compounded stress and anxiety among firefighters.

“It was hard on one another to have that social interaction, to be able to talk about things with one another,” Azzarella said.

Now a bill, H. 3939, recently passed the state house. It would allow firefighters and police officers to use workers compensation for mental health needs.

William Pesature, with the Professional Fire Fighters Association of South Carolina, said it would be a game changer for thousands across the state.

“You want us to be there for your worst day and that’s what we train to do and that’s what we’re prepared to do. What we’re asking is for you to be there on our worst day, when we need some help,” Pesature said. “If I was to injure my leg at a fire, they would put me on Workmen’s Comp, let me heal, get better and come back to work. We are asking the same thing for PTSD.”

Currently the state does support two programs, SCLEAP and FAST, that help first responders with training or resources immediately after witnessing or being a part of a traumatic event.

But Pesature said there needs to be longer-term financial support for first responders battling mental illness.

“These are teams that go in and they talk to people about traumatic events and stuff like that, but when they leave it’s over,” Pesature said. “We all put on our superman cape and go and do our job because that’s what we are expected to do and that’s what we know how to do. But the issues come when you leave work and you come home and you get comfortable.”

Henry Lewis with the South Carolina EMS Association says although EMTs are not currently covered in the bill, he hopes to see mental health compensation include them as well.

“EMS experiences the same hardships that fire and law enforcement as well,” Lewis said. “So it only makes sense that we would include the frontline workers that are going to see the vast majorities of the difficult scenes.”

The EMS Association in the meantime is working with other state agencies, like DHEC, to create more proactive resources to better cope with traumatic events.

“We are working on some specialized training that we will take across the state to our 270 providers,” Lewis said. “Hopefully get some feedback on how to better serve them and prepare them for what they might encounter over the course of their job.”

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