Training

Georgia Bill Would Provide Government Help for First Responders in Distress

A full-time staff of law enforcement, EMS and firefighters would be available for peer counseling.

by Jim McKay / February 15, 2018

First responders see some horrific things, and many internalize their feelings. They’re the helpers and aren’t supposed to be the ones needing help.

But often they need some guidance on how to handle some of what they deal with, and in Georgia a bill would provide counseling for the state’s first responders.

House Bill 703, introduced by Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, himself a former Georgia State trooper, would develop a department in the Governor’s Office — the Governor’s Office of Public Safety Support — and would provide access for all first responders at all levels of government, peer support teams and to post critical incident seminars.

The seminars have been used annually for law enforcement who were involved in traumatic events, pulling law enforcement peers from agencies for the seminars but the bill would fund an office of full-time staff for the seminars, which would address mental health issues, peer support and help from the clergy.

It might also help ease the stigma attached to getting help for depression PTSD and other issues. Patrick Cullinan says he knows first-hand how important it is for first responders to have help with job-related stress.

Cullinan, a veteran of 28 years of law enforcement, fire and EMS, and now with the Police Benevolent Association, said he turned to alcohol to suppress depression he felt from what he’d seen on the job.

At one point, Cullinan knew he needed help but feared he might lose his job if he asked and revealed his problems. He was wrong and got the help he needed. Now he advocates for others in that same predicament.

Cullinan said he’d been to a couple of fatal shootings. Saw an 8-year old boy hanging in a closet. “It kept me up at night for years.”

Finally, he went to his sheriff and told him he was drinking his nights away and needed help. “I was trying to handle things myself for years and finally broke down and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ even though I thought it was going to cost me my job.”

Cullinan knows there are many first responders who could use help but who are afraid to ask. He’s here to tell them that it’s OK to ask for help.

“I live in a city of about 250,000, and I personally know seven or eight [first responders] who have committed suicide who were in the same position I was in,” he said.

Hitchens said, in a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Really, do we want somebody riding up and down the roads that’s suffering from those kinds of problems, that may explode at any moment, dealing with people? It’s a two-edge sword — it’s good for the public and it’s good for [the officers] as well.”

The program would form full-time staff of trained law enforcement, EMS and firefighters as peer support members to provide counselling to Georgia first responders.

Cullinan said finding peer support meant “scrambling around” for someone to volunteer and paying for it meant having raffles and concerts to raise money. This would make help available and easier to get.

“The most impactful thing I did in my 28-year career was attend one of those seminars,” Cullinan said. “This would save families, not just jobs.”