Nev. senator’s bill aims to improve federal mental health support for first responders
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen’s bill will create a grant program for peer counseling programs specific to first responders
By Casey Harrison
Las Vegas Sun
WASHINGTON — A bill introduced by Nevada U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen aims to better mental health outcomes for law enforcement and first responders across the nation.
The legislation seeks to improve federal mental health support programs available to firefighters, police and other emergency personnel by directing the Department of Health and Human Services to collect data on rates of first responder suicides and how to identify and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Rosen’s office.
The bill would also establish a federal grant program for peer counseling programs specifically for addressing mental health among firefighters and emergency medical service personnel.
The Helping Emergency Responders Overcome Act, also known as the HERO Act, was introduced by Rosen, a Democrat, along with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
“Our nation’s first responders are heroes who regularly put themselves in harm’s way to save lives and protect communities, which can take an enormous toll on their mental health,” Rosen said in a statement to the Sun. “We must take action to make sure our firefighters, law enforcement officers, and paramedics in Nevada have the mental health resources they need. My bipartisan legislation will help ensure that our first responders have the counseling and mental health care support they deserve.”
Similar iterations of the bill have previously stalled in Congress, most recently in August 2021.
“I’m pleased to co-lead the HERO Act because our firefighters and first responders deserve our full support,” Fischer said in a statement. “Our bipartisan bill would boost access to critical mental health resources that will reduce suicides, set up peer-to-peer counseling, and treat posttraumatic stress.”
The measure has also earned the support of local agencies such as Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, as well as first responder labor unions like the Nevada Police Union and Las Vegas Firefighters Local 1285. Chief Fernando Gray, who took over as head of Fire and Rescue last August, said in a statement the bill could prove to be a vital lifeline to struggling first responders.
“Firefighters and EMS personnel respond to traumatic events daily, and these incidents cause acute and cumulative impacts on the responders and their families,” Gray said. “The HERO Act will provide local fire and EMS departments with significant behavioral and mental wellness resources.”
In 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a study from the Ruderman Foundation that found law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. The Ruderman Foundation in its most recent annual “White Paper” report, published last June, found 116 suicides nationally among law enforcement in 2020, and at least 61 through 2021.
Those rates, however, may be underreported for a myriad of reasons, said Jeff Dill, a retired firefighter and founder of the North Las Vegas-based Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, a non-profit aimed at spreading awareness and prevention strategies for firefighters in mental crisis.
Locally, it’s much more difficult to say definitively the rate of first responder suicide because agencies aren’t required to track such data, Dill said. But through his own approximations, at least 19 Las Vegas-based firefighters or EMS have died by suicide since 2003, with at least six of those coming in the last five years.
“It’s a difficult subject because we’re talking about suicide and PTSD,” Dill said, adding he’s been tracking such ailments among the firefighting community since starting the alliance in 2010. “You have to have data to show where the issues are. And without it, you’re just making guesses and assumptions.”
In February, Dill’s team released a report surveying 479 firefighters across nine agencies and found that 57.6% of respondents reported experiencing so-called moral injury, or situations that internal moral compass. Symptoms of moral injury are similar to that of PTSD such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts or guilt, but if left untreated, can spiral into other issues, Dill said.
“I think Moral injury might play as large of a role, if not larger, than PTSD,” Dill said. “And this is why we do what we do. If we can get Sen. Rosen’s bill passed, it puts the onus on departments across America to remember our fallen brothers and sisters.”