Peer-Support Bill For First Responders Passes Assembly

A bill authored by Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) is designed to help emergency responders get the help they need to cope with the stressful and dangerous situations they deal with on a daily basis.

“Too often, first responders’ only way to cope with the stress of their job is to tough it out,” Kitchens said in a statement. “Some call that John Wayne Syndrome. My bill will make sure there is confidential help from others who understand.”

Assembly Bill 576 – which the Assembly approved unanimously and is now with the State Senate for further consideration – would require the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish and implement a program under which emergency responders – firefighters, law enforcement, correctional officers, ambulance personnel, etc. – could establish peer support teams and critical incident stress management services (CISM) teams. The DOJ would be required to organize the training program required for membership on either of the teams.  

Citing a study published last year by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Kitchens said first responders can experience anywhere between a hundred to over a thousand critical incidents throughout their careers, and may feel like they are unable to talk to anyone.

Kitchens said the issue was first brought to his attention by Chief Deputy/Undersheriff Pat McCarty of the Door County Sheriff’s Office, who told him about the effectiveness of peer support programs to help law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs, and other emergency personnel deal with the emotional stress of their jobs.

McCarty testified on the bill during the Nov. 1 committee hearing. He said a deputy’s job has become more complex over the course of his 30-year career, with mental health calls skyrocketing and drugs like fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine commonplace. 

“The patrol deputies I work with are now de facto social workers, crisis counselors, in addition to the traditional roles of detecting and investigating and apprehending criminal violators,” McCarty said according to the written account of his testimony. “They work in an environment where everything they do is recorded, where the decisions they make are scrutinized and analyzed and the national media only portrays the negative. Our county jails have become mental health facilities. My jail administrator estimates that nearly 50% of the inmates in our facility has some type of mental illness or substance dependence. Our jail deputies now oversee multiple withdrawal protocols daily. They have to manage a number of inmates with a variety of mental illnesses. Physical assaults on our jail staff have increased dramatically.”

McCarty said law enforcement today is regularly exposed to “a high volume of trauma, and then re-exposed to the same event when they write their reports, review body camera footage and testify in court.” 

He cited the toll this takes on the lives of law enforcement professionals, including a lower-than-average life expectancy and “higher divorce rates, suicide rates and substance abuse rates than the general public.”

He said those statistics have started to change as peer support becomes more available to help deputies cope with the challenges of their positions.

“We need to remove the barriers between an officer who is struggling and the help they need,” he said.