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'Need to be more proactive': First responder says new law is step in right direction

Gov. Andy Beshear ceremonially signed House Bill 562 Wednesday. The bill provides 48 hours of time off for police and firefighters after critical incidents.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Wednesday, Gov. Andy Beshear ceremonially signed House Bill 562, relating to mental health for first responders

The bill establishes 48 hours of time off for police officers and firefighters following critical incidents. 

The bill also redefines a critical incident. It includes officer-involved shootings, serious vehicle crashes, the death of a colleague or partner and other circumstances. 

Brian O'Neil, president of the Louisville Professional Firefighters, said bills like HB562 are working to address a longstanding stigma among first responders

“You’re supposed to just suck it up and be tough and deal with everything. And certainly, we do," he said. “We’ve done a lot better over the last several years with trying to do away with the stigma.”

Not addressing the root traumas of the job though, can lead to dire consequences. 

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“Even if you might try to lie to yourself and say you’re doing okay, the body remembers,” O'Neil said. “Every time we take a step forward in recognizing the legitimacy of these issues it gets us closer to normalizing.” 

According to the Ruderman Foundation, police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. 

Dr. Mike Freville, a Louisville Metro Police mental health counselor, Freville said he encourages officers to seek additional support, in addition to time off the job, after critical incidents like shootings.

With the expansion of the definition of a critical incident, he said it's also important to make mental health work a daily part of the job. 

“An officer knows when they take the oath, they don’t know the day, they don’t know the hour on any given day of the week," Freville said. "A critical traumatic incident is going to hit them square in the face.”

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Freville adds for smaller departments, this particular measure could have a bigger footprint. 

“They don’t enjoy the same robust mental health support package LMPD does," Freville said. 

O'Neil said for firefighters though, the bill's impact will likely be smaller. He said most professional firefighters in the area work a 24-hour-on, 48-hour-off shift. 

That means after a shift, they're already getting the recuperation time required in the bill. 

Still, he's encouraged by steps like this, and other measures in recent years, seeking to address the stigma around mental health in the profession. 

“What we need to do is we need to be more proactive," O'Neil said. "We need to not wait until the incidents are happening and people are hurting.” 

The bill does not require time off to be paid. O'Neil said he hoped employers would get on board with requiring compensation. 

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