In polarized capital, partisans agree on treating first responders for PTSD
Harold Schaitberger | Ron Edmonds/AP

WASHINGTON—In a national capital known for its bitter, polarized partisanship, Democrats and Republicans – including apparently two GOP Trump administration Cabinet members – seem to have found something to agree upon: First responders, especially Fire Fighters, suffer the mental and psychological anguish of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Which is why politicians marching to the podium of the Fire Fighters’ legislative conference on March 6 endorsed the union’s year-old initiative: A mental health center for suffering members, which has already treated 266 people.

“For years, you’ve heard the words ‘strong, tough, brave,’” said Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, in what may be his first speech before a union crowd. “But after conversations with your president,” Harold Schaitberger, and a visit to the center in Maryland, “I’ve learned your job takes a heavy toll, even on the strongest, toughest and bravest.”

People whom the Fire Fighters rescue “don’t see the effects on you after the hose has been turned off and the fire has been defeated,” Acosta mused. But nurses, doctors, caregivers and counselors at the center treat the Fire Fighters who come there as brothers and sisters, he said.

The facility, called the Center of Excellence in Behavior Health Treatment and Recovery, also treats Fire Fighters who become addicted to opioids, now a spreading public health threat for millions of workers nationwide. More importantly, the center is a way “we need to encourage people” who normally help others, but who don’t like to talk about it, “to step forward and say ‘we need help,’” Acosta added.

Statistics show one of every five fire fighters suffers from PTSD from the constant pressure of treating people who are badly burned or overcome by noxious chemicals in burning buildings – and watching many of them die. They also watch their colleagues die from the same causes.

One of the latest: Navy veteran and Lacey, Wash., Fire Fighter Crystal Murphy, suffering from PTSD, committed suicide.  That’s led fire fighters in Washington state to lobby for funds for mental health treatment.

The same PTSD and opioid hits are happening in Massachusetts, GOP Gov. Charlie Baker told the IAFF conference, and in Tennessee, Chattanooga Fire Department Lieut. Brad Freeman told local media. Those departments are lobbying their states, too.

At the D.C. conference, Acosta wasn’t the only official to embrace the center. So did Trump Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

President Trump’s budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 does not mention the center. That may be good. One of the union’s other legislative goals for the 3-day conference is to preserve grants to state and local governments for the IAFF-championed grants for the Safer fire training program and a second program to help local agencies buy new equipment. Trump wants to cut all local assistance grants the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributes by $1 billion for the year starting Oct. 1. Most of that, $690 million, would come from eliminating the “Assistance to Firefighter Grants.”

That may not fly on Capitol Hill, where Fire Fighters have long enjoyed bipartisan support in funding, if not for another cause, collective bargaining rights for state and local first responders. “We extended the” two IAFF-backed “programs. Now we have to make sure they’re properly funded,” said another speaker, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.