AIKEN, S.C. (WJBF) — First responders face unthinkable tragedies on the job. A new bill being considered in South Carolina’s Legislature looks to support them if those tragedies affect their mental health. H.B. 3939 would allow the state’s 11,000+ firefighters, volunteer firefighters and members of law enforcement to receive worker’s compensation if they are diagnosed with a mental or stress-related illness. That illness must stem from an event they experienced while working.
If the bill is approved, first responders could be eligible for worker’s compensation if they are diagnosed with one of the following stress, mental injury or mental illnesses:
- Anxiety disorder
- Conduct disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Sleep-wake disorder
- Post-traumatic disorder
“Having the state’s support and money would be very beneficial,” Capt. Martin Sawyer, of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, says. “You see death, injuries and families that are split up because a mom or dad might be arrested or in jail. We also deal with law abiding citizens that don’t get in trouble. But, we see them at the worst times in their lives.”
Under current law, a first responder can only be compensated if they suffer a physical injury while working.
South Carolina currently offers several programs for firefighters and law enforcement to support their mental health, providing them with peer support and clinical services. However, they are only eligible for $15,000 worth of coverage a year. Charlie King, the Executive Director of the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association, says “124 firefighters, EMS and dispatchers are under clinical care.”
“First responders are important to the communities they serve in,” King explains. “It’s important that they’re healthy to not only continue with their talents at work, but be able to go home and have a healthy life with their families.”
The city of Aiken has prioritized mental health for members of the Department of Public Safety. Dispatchers, firefighters and public safety officers are required to attend annual mental health education sessions. If the department experiences a traumatic event, all members are required to undergo a debriefing, in which they are provided emotional and psychological support.
“We make it mandatory that they go,” Sawyer says. “Some don’t want to go. What I’ve found in my experience is when they see other people opening up and talking about it, they do the same thing. The next time, they want to go because it makes them feel better.”
H.B. 3939 has been approved by South Carolina’s House. It needs to be approved by the State’s Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster.