Bill would protect confidentiality in first responder counseling programs

Bill would expand on services some departments already provide.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – It’s no secret that serving in law enforcement, firefighting or other public safety fields can be incredibly stressful. Senate Bill 64 aims to lessen the mental health burdens of these careers through confidential, peer support counseling programs.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, received unanimous approval Wednesday during a meeting of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. It now heads to the full Senate.

SB 64 would allow public agencies to create peer support counseling programs for public safety employees who have experienced traumatic events in their work. Central to the bill, however, are confidentially protections for those who participate in the programs.

Wilson said police, firefighters and other emergency responders are frequently exposed to situations that can cause psychological trauma, similar to the post-traumatic stress experienced in warfare. Wilson said he learned about these issues while serving as a law enforcement chaplain in Los Angeles many years ago.

“I just can’t imagine some of the things they do and then have to go home every day,” he said.

Wilson said the legislation is important to protect those who protect our communities.

“This has become quite evident, especially in light of the tornadoes that hit Kentucky and all over in Western Kentucky and Bowling Green – never seen that level of devastation,” Wilson said.

Erin Hulsey, Director of Human Resources and Risk Management for the City of Bowling Green, said she has been working with many groups to establish peer counseling.

“I learned that being a first responder is truly a unique job,” she told committee members. “The events that police officers and firefighters experience on the job are abnormal to the average person. The events they experience are horrific and traumatic.”

She offered statistics from the federal government to drive home what first responders face while doing their jobs.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 60% of men and 50% of women will experience one traumatic event in their life on average, Hulsey reported. However, first responders can experience more than one such event in a single shift, she said.

Bryanna Carroll, Director of Public Affairs for the Kentucky League of Cities, said the peer counseling programs could potentially benefit tens of thousands of Kentuckians.

“Our cities want to take care of these people both physically and mentally,” she said. “Senate Bill 64 helps ensure they can do so without fear of personal information becoming public knowledge.”

The confidentially provisions in SB 64 include some exceptions, such as explicit threats to self or others, information on an abused child or admission of criminal conduct.

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