I entered into employment law for the fire and emergency services only a few years ago. Though I typically write or speak about wrongdoing — hazing, harassment, discrimination — I understand that first responders willingly face dangers in the performance of their duties. And as an employment attorney, it is obvious to me — especially in light of the Connecticut tragedy — that departments must provide responders with the emotional and psychological support they need to serve their communities competently and confidently.
First responders were faced with an ordeal in which they were essentially helpless. Sadly, such events seem to be occurring more frequently. So, the failure to provide first responders with the emotional resources they need to confront the demons thrust upon them can have dire consequences: family issues, depression, loss of sleep, isolation, hesitancy in responding to calls, and suicide.
I spoke at Fire-Rescue International about managing leaves of absence under myriad laws and other rules, such as collective bargaining agreements and department and municipal policies. Obviously, there are valid concerns about individuals who try to “game the system” and abuse leave policies. Adequate staffing is always an issue. But “adequate staffing” means more than having a certain number of bodies present on a shift: Those present must be able bodied — physically, mentally and emotionally. And because of that, leave and other accommodations under the Family & Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act should be considered as soon as leadership becomes concerned about post-event effects.
Generally it is the employee’s responsibility to request assistance under one of these laws; however, that is not the case when emotional or psychological well-being is at issue. Many courts recognize that an individual suffering from an emotional or psychological condition may be unwilling or unable to request assistance. Such unwillingness is highly likely in fire and emergency services, where courage (and perhaps some machismo) is the norm.
But how does leadership inquire if anyone needs assistance? You can do it generally at shift meetings, inviting people to contact you or a designated counselor privately. You can take similar actions in a department-wide memorandum. You can do it in one-on-one meetings. There are myriad ways to do it – just remember to be compassionate and cognizant of a person’s privacy.
Health insurance may or may not cover such services — they can be expensive. Consider whether competent, professional services can be volunteered, given that department funding for resources is always an issue. Explore the services provided by chaplains provided at neighboring religious institutions. Establish relationships with therapists in the area working with post-traumatic stress disorder, grief counseling and relating specialties. If you have a local IAFF affiliate, work with its leadership to jointly develop resources — psychological and emotional well-being is a joint labor-management concern.
As employment lawyers and personnel advisors, we spend much time focusing on physical abilities, promotional testing, and the like. We need to focus as well on emotional and psychological well-being. Push your lawyers and advisors for help in this area — it is just as important as the rest.