The mental health of firefighters is at risk. A California bill could help.

A San Luis Obispo firefighter maintains a perimeter watch around a burning shed in an effort to protect nearby homes on Triangle Road in Mariposa, Calif., from the Oak Fire near Yosemite Park, on Saturday, July 23, 2022. (Photo : Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

By Julie Car | CalMatters

A state Senate bill that would expand workers’ compensation coverage for California first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, intended to address what Cal Fire officials call a mental health crisis, cleared its first legislative hurdle and was sent to the Assembly.

Authored by Sen. John Laird, a Salinas Democrat, the bill is one of a growing number of state initiatives trying to address the cause of mental health problems and the difficulty first responders encounter when seeking medical care through state insurance.

The bill would extend by seven years a provision in existing state law that says PTSD qualifies as an occupational disease that is covered by workers’ compensation for firefighters, police officers and other first responders. The extension would last until January 1, 2032, instead of expiring in 2025. The bill would also add more categories of dispatchers, law enforcement officers, investigators, and public safety officers in psychological injury claims.

“Trial by Fire,” a series of CalMatters stories published last summer, revealed how overwork and heartbreak over the intensifying wildfires have left Cal Fire crews with increased post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems. Cal Fire Director Joe Tyler told CalMatters the department was facing a mental health crisis and listed it as his top priority.

Cal Fire does not track suicides or PTSD among its ranks, but many firefighters and their supervisors told CalMatters that the problems are rampant and described their trauma in detail. The stress of long hours and dangerous work triggers health problems, binge drinking, drug use and marital discord among firefighters, experts say.

Laird said the CalMatters series “set the context” for his bill and other efforts to address the mental health crisis among first responders. The state has already agreed to a union contract that would reduce Cal Fire’s firefighters’ 72-hour work weeks to 66 hours beginning in late 2024.

The state’s fire union has long called on lawmakers to fill gaps in workers’ compensation coverage that make it difficult for them to receive robust mental health care coverage.

This bill, SB-623, would be a first step in doing that. But some issues facing first responders are more nuanced and harder to legislate: encouraging them to report their problems and ensuring their jobs aren’t threatened. And expand Cal Fire’s accountability and improve its data reporting while maintaining people’s medical privacy.

The bill “moves things in the right direction,” said Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire Local 2882. “We support any bill that will raise awareness and funding to help combat the growing number of calls for help.”

Edwards added that other core issues, such as working hours and a lack of treatment centers for mental health issues, still need to be addressed.

The bill passed the Senate in a 35-0 plenary vote on Monday and now goes to the Assembly.

Laird said state officials are reluctant to write checks to fix a problem they can’t quantify, so it’s critical first responders share their PTSD experiences with lawmakers as evidence of the scope of the problem.

“The difficulty has been that the governor wants to know that this is, in fact, necessary,” he said. “We are working with professional firefighters to collect data and first-hand stories. Our goal is to show that this is vital. That was what was missing, the data.”

Laird said the first responders’ lobbying efforts were effective because they included personal stories from workers suffering from PTSD and other mental health illnesses. “It makes a difference,” she said. “People can relate.”

The proposed legislation recognizes the stress experienced by 911 dispatchers and operators who may not witness accidents or fires but are nevertheless experiencing trauma and may want to seek counseling.

To qualify for workers’ compensation coverage under existing law, a mental health disorder must be diagnosed and cause a disability or the need for medical treatment, and the employee must “show by a preponderance of the evidence” that the events in the work were the main cause.

Opposition to the bill comes from a coalition of workers’ compensation organizations and the state Association of Counties. They say that psychological problems are difficult to diagnose and their origins hard to pinpoint, which sets a high bar for attributing trauma and PTSD as a workplace injury.