Bill seeks to expand peer counseling for Ga. first responders

Responders urged state lawmakers to create a state-run program that would use peer counseling to address the emotional needs of those working

By Maya T. Prabhu
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — One by one, first responders told a room of lawmakers about the times they’ve come face to face with emotionally trying situations and had to pull through on their own for fear of appearing weak.

“I turned to Jack Daniels and Jim Beam as my counselor,” said Patrick Cullinan of Augusta, who’s worked as a firefighter, emergency medical technician and police officer. “In 2003, by trying to treat myself with alcohol, I found myself off Washington Road in Augusta trying to hang myself.

“God found for me to survive that hanging when the belt broke. And I woke up and I said I don’t care if I lose my career, (I’m getting help),” said Cullinan, who now works with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association.

Cullinan was one of several first responders who urged state lawmakers to create a state-run program that would use peer counseling to address the emotional needs of those working in fields ranging from state Department of Transportation road workers to police officers and prison guards.

The bill received initial approval this week in a unanimous vote by the House Public Safety Committee.

Since 2005, the state has had a program that trained law enforcement officers to talk to their peers through emotionally difficult times.

If a proposal by state Rep. Bill Hitchens, a former head of the Georgia State Patrol, is approved, first responders at all levels of government would be able to access the service.

“People are more open with people who’ve had similar experiences,” said Hitchens, R-Rincon.

His proposal, House Bill 703, would create the Governor’s Office of Public Safety Support, housed in the state Department of Public Safety, to provide peer-counseling services to first responders and their immediate family.

A 2015 study by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services found that 6.6 percent of EMS workers surveyed had tried to kill themselves, compared with 0.5 percent of the general public.

Cullinan told lawmakers the measure was important to the lives of the people who are tasked with keeping Georgians safe.

“I’ve gotten involved in this stuff with peer support as a way to pay it forward,” he said. “This is truly saving officers’ jobs, it’s saving marriages, and it’s saving lives.”

It would cost the state about $1.3 million to create the office with a staff of about three trained employees, Hitchens said, adding he believes it’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

“Really, do we want somebody riding up and down the roads that’s suffering from those kind of problems, that may explode at any moment, dealing with people?” Hitchens said. “It’s a two-edged sword — it’s good for the public and it’s good for them as well.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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