First Responder Peer Support Bill Passes House

Police, firefighters and paramedics in Massachusetts are closer to getting the help they need as some struggle with what they encounter on the job every day.

A bill that has been stalled in the legislature for three years has taken a big step forward. Tuesday, a peer support bill allowing all first responders to ask for help confidentially passed the House of Representatives. It passed the Senate unanimously last week.

"Our first responders come into a scene in which, oftentimes, those folks that are affected are their close friends, family members," said Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers.

Within minutes of a critical incident, such as the murders of police officers in Auburn, Yarmouth and Weymouth, peer support teams are on the scene to assist with the emotional side of what officers have witnessed. However, the day-to-day trauma also takes its toll.

Since the Boston Marathon bombings, McClain Hospital has treated over 500 first responders often referred by these critical teams.

Tuesday brought emotional testimony from State Rep. Tim Whelan, a former Massachusetts State Police trooper. He told the story of a 24-year-old new officer.

"As the officer runs up to the car, he can hear the lone female occupant yelling, 'Please help me, please help me.' As he got closer, the car went up in flames and that officer watched that young woman burn to death and there was nothing he could do. It was a helpless feeling he lived with that day and lived with him the rest of his career," Whelan recalled.

First responders are often hesitant to step forward because of the stigma.

"The only thing that helped bring him back when those memories haunted him in the middle of the night was access to emergency counselors on the state police. That police officer was me," Whelan said.

According to the organization BLUE H.E.L.P. in Worcester, 74 police officers have committed suicide nationwide so far this year. The bill goes back to the Senate with a midnight deadline of Tuesday night. From there, it will go to the desk of Gov. Charlie Baker.

If the bill passes, Massachusetts will join 22 other states with confidential peer support for first responders.

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