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First responder PTSD bill left out volunteers, some EMS workers

Rochester Volunteer Fire Company.PNG
Posted at 9:40 AM, Jun 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 11:36:08-04

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Earlier this year, Gov Tony Evers signed a bill allowing first responders to file for workers' compensation to seek treatment for mental injuries they suffer on the job, namely PTSD.

It was hailed as a victory for first responders. However, those that are not full-time firefighters or police officers, including EMS workers not attached to a full-time fire department as well as volunteer firefighters, were not included in the final piece of legislation that was signed into law.

The I-Team discovered it's something sorely needed in the volunteer first responder community.

In Racine County, the Rochester Volunteer Fire Company lost one of its own to suicide earlier this year.

First responder PTSD bill left out volunteers, some EMS workers

Chief Jack Biermann said Assistant Chief Cathy Wagner was always quick to remind her fellow firefighters that she and the chief were always there to talk through the trauma they saw on calls.

"After calls and on a monthly basis she would make sure to tell our people, hey I’m here the chief is here. If you don’t want to talk to us we’ll get you somebody to talk to," Biermann said. "But we don’t know you’re having a problem unless you come to talk to us. Unfortunately, she had a hard time taking her own advice."

Wagner died by suicide in February of this year.

"We miss her, we love her, we wish that she would have reached out to us and told us that she needed help," Biermann said.

"She was definitely one of the hands that kept this place together," he also said. "Kept it running. There was stuff she did behind the scenes that even I didn’t know about until now."

Trauma in the life of a first responder is not limited to one department.

In July of 2018, an explosion from a gas leak took the life of Sun Prairie Fire Captain Cory Barr.

The buildings have been repaired, but Sun Prairie Chief Christopher Garrison said some things won't ever completely heal. However, he and his firefighters can strive to be stronger every day.

"I think of Cory every day," he said. "Every day I wake up and I think of him. I think of Cory in a positive way, how can I come to work today and make my life the lives of our firefighters better?"

First responder PTSD bill left out volunteers, some EMS workers

Garrison told the I-Team a healthy fire department both physically and emotionally has become a department priority.

"I'm going to be honest with you, I needed help I went to a couple of appointments with a therapist and that didn't work for me," Garrison said.

Garrison found the help he needed through his faith. But the path is different for everyone. Some need treatment that may not be covered by insurance and can be costly.

Firefighters and EMTs are no strangers to picking up their fellow first responders, whether it's person to person, or in the community through pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners.

But a law passed in April of this year aimed to offer financial help by allowing first responders to file for workers' compensation for the mental injuries they suffer on the job.

First responders suffering from PTSD are now covered by workers compensation

The author of the proposal, state Sen. Andre Jacque, R-DePere, had been working on it for about eight years. It originally included all first responders, including all EMS workers, along with volunteers and part-timers. But it was modified to pass a state insurance advisory council.

"The hope is that working through the process with the advisory council working through the process with legislators that we had to even get educated to this point, we’re going to be rolling out yet this session and hopefully very soon follow up legislation that is going to deal with to EMS that’s going to deal with all those other categories as well in terms of corrections officers or volunteer firefighters," Jacque said.

"This is great for 20 people on my fire department, but what about the other 60?" Garrison said.

Alan DeYoung of the Wisconsin EMS Association said by modifying the bill, it missed three-quarters of the state's first responders. WEMSA reports approximately 75 percent of fire departments and EMS providers rely on volunteers.

"They see all the same types of calls," DeYoung said. "The same type of trauma. In many cases, it’s worse than police and fire."

He said they carry what they see on those calls with them, same as full-time first responders.

"I know the American Paramedic Association did a study on that it's five times more likely for a paramedic or first responder to die from suicide than it is for a firefighter or police officer," DeYoung said.

Jacque has said he will bring follow-up legislation to try to cover EMTs not part of full-time firehouses, along with volunteer and part-time first responders. He hopes it won't take four two-year legislative sessions to do so.

"Of course it's never as quick as you like. I wish I could have gotten this done four sessions ago when people said it's never gonna get done," Jacque said. "But I do think we're on a path to be able to get follow-ups much quicker simply because we've finely taken that step."

Both Garrison and Biermann say volunteer or not, these are real people in need of real help.

"I deal with a PTSD issue every three months," Garrison said.

"At the time it doesn’t sink in because you’re there to do a job and you gotta get it done," Biermann said. "Afterward when we go home to our family or try to go to bed, you get time to think about all that and that’s really when it sinks in that, wow this really bothers me...Unfortunately, we’re seeing the suicide rates in our profession on an uprise."

In Sun Prairie, Garrison keeps Captain Barr close to his heart, as well as in firehouse programming aimed at health and wellness for its members.

"We carry a coin in our pocket every day that has Cory's name on it so we never forget," he said. "The idea is to never forget. The other idea is if we’re gonna remember let’s do it in a positive light because Cory wouldn’t change the outcome of that day to save how many people who were saved that day. We evacuated over 200 people from a very dangerous area."

Meanwhile in Rochester, Biermann said his house is still grieving the loss of Assistant Chief Wagner.

"It still taking it one day at a time," Biermann said. "Every day that one thing is going on down here, it’s just not the same without her."

The I-Team has reported numerous times on first responder mental health and wellness. See the following stories below for more information:

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