Lawmakers Move to Restore Mental-Health Hotline for Firefighters, EMS

Lilo H. Stainton | September 18, 2018 | Health Care
Specially trained operators would help emergency responders deal with the traumas that can come with their stressful line of work

New Jersey firefighters and emergency medical providers could once again have their own dedicated hotline staffed by trained operators who can help them in a crisis and connect with professionals to address mental health or substance use problems.

Lawmakers advanced a new Democratic-sponsored bill to re-establish a free 24-hour telephone line dedicated to assisting certain emergency responders with behavioral health issues. The measure also provides for referrals to trained providers and peers who can provide further counseling, as well as specific training. At least $250,000 would be appropriated annually to support the service, to be funded by fire code violations.

The legislation, approved by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee yesterday, would resurrect a program operated by the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey until 2009, according to legislative staff, although it was not immediately clear why it was discontinued. A similar service, the COP2COP program, created in 2000, still exists for law enforcement personnel.

Risky nature of the job

Experts agree that the stressful nature of emergency response work — which can often involve dealing with injury, violence and death — and the risky nature of the job can combine to put these professionals at risk for mental illness and substance use disorders. The work, with long and often unpredictable hours, can also place extreme strain on family dynamics.

“Emergency services workers and firefighters have tough jobs, and unfortunately, mental health problems often come with the territory,” said Sen. Fred Madden (D-Camden,) a lead sponsor of the bill. “It’s important that we honor their unselfish commitment to their communities by being there for them when they are in need.”

Dealing with depression, PTSD

State Sen. Fred Madden (D-Camden)
Madden’s office said a recent study showed one-third of first responders were diagnosed with either depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Half had not received treatment for these issues, or pre-exposure training, a protocol designed to prepare first responders for traumatic events they encounter at work, he noted.

Princeton House Behavioral Health, part of the Princeton HealthCare System, launched a specific program for first responders in 2013 and has treated hundreds of emergency professionals and veterans in the years since. The program’s success is based in the peer-to-peer model it uses, according to those involved.

To assist these responders and their families, the National Volunteer Fire Council also operates a free, confidential hotline, which can also connect callers with treatment services nationwide. The number is: 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).

According to state statistics, there are nearly 28,000 licensed emergency medical responders in New Jersey, and more than 5,000 firefighters — both paid professionals and trained volunteers.

The bill (S-2898) introduced last Thursday by Madden and Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), and co-sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), directs the state Division of Fire Safety, under the Department of Community Affairs, to work with Rutgers’ University Behavioral Health Care and emergency professionals to establish the 24/7 hotline, the “New Jersey Fire and EMS Crisis Intervention Services.”

Common psychological conditions

Rutgers behavioral health center already operates an addiction and mental health hotline service (1-844-276-2777) with a comprehensive, coordinated referral service that has helped tens of thousands of residents in recent years. The state also supports the Mental Health Association of New Jersey’s NJ CONNECT line (1-855-652-3737), for friends and families of drug users, and the New Jersey Hopeline, (1-855-654-6735) a 24/7 suicide hotline.

For the fire and EMS hotline, the proposal would require call takers to receive specific training from the state’s fire-safety division and Rutgers to familiarize them with post-traumatic stress disorders and other psychological conditions common to emergency professionals. Operators would also be taught counseling skills to assist with marriage and family disputes, substance use disorder, and emotional battles that may particularly affect these responders.

If needed, operators would be able to refer callers to outside services for additional help. The bill also directs state officials to work with the university to craft a list of resources available to help responders, including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, qualified counselors, and experienced former firefighters and emergency service personnel who could provide peer support.

While calls to the hotline would be kept confidential, the bill allows the fire safety division to work with the university to establish guidelines for monitoring any caller who “exhibits signs of a severe psychological or emotional disorder or condition that may result in harm to the caller or others.”

The proposal would also require the state to allocate at least $250,000, with the final amount to be determined by the DCA commissioner, to run the hotline program. Funding would come from code violation penalties collected by the fire safety division. In the past, the state allocated $90,000 annually for this service, according to Madden’s office.