Suicide spurs Fla. city fire union to propose mental health plan

The plan would make a doctor available to help firefighters struggling with trauma and mental illness


Emily Sullivan
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — A Florida city's firefighters union is pushing for more emphasis on mental health after losing an officer to suicide.

"One of our brothers passed away of this disease," said Shawn Weeks, president of Local 1891, the union that represents Boynton's paramedics and firefighters. "Nobody thought this was gonna happen."

The union representing firefighters in Boynton Beach, Fla., has proposed a mental health plan that would make a doctor available to help firefighters struggling with mental illness and trauma. (Photo/The Palm Beach Post, File)
The union representing firefighters in Boynton Beach, Fla., has proposed a mental health plan that would make a doctor available to help firefighters struggling with mental illness and trauma. (Photo/The Palm Beach Post, File)

Noting Boynton's fallen officer will "guide us into changing this profession," Weeks rolled out an early-stage proposal calling for a joint venture with the city to make a doctor available to help when firefighters experience trauma or suffer symptoms of mental illness. The union would cover treatment and travel costs.

Suicide in 2017 claimed the lives of at least 103 firefighters, according to a white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates that number was underreported and actually exceeded 250.

At least 10 more firefighters died in 2017 by suicide than in the line of duty.

Weeks made the proposal Dec. 19 to the city's human resources director, Julie Oldbury. Also at the table were Matt Petty, interim fire chief, and Kurt Lewis, Local 1891's vice president.

The approach could be unique, Weeks said. He couldn't identify any other fire union in the county with a mental health plan like the one he is proposing.

The union has been working with a doctor who volunteers time and pays the doctor's travel bills.

The city offers an employee assistance program that helps employees get support. While Weeks praised that program, he said, it's "not 100 percent helping."

Right now, he said, "there's no real person who's qualified to deal with something like this."

In addition to contracting with a doctor, the plan would train new firefighters and paramedics on the job's emotional tolls. It would extend support to firefighters' families.

A four-hour course could more effectively inform 10 to 12 new hires, as well as the eight still on probation, he said. Families could receive help of their own, stocked with resources and solidarity.

Weeks said he wants to implement provisions in early 2020. He plans to hand in a written proposal soon.

"It's been one of those untold stories," said Weeks, highlighting the field-wide prevalence of depression symptoms and suicides, particularly among retirees. "I need the city to participate and be on board with it."

Oldbury said she thinks the initiative is likely to get city support.

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©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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