The Dallas City Council will soon consider a new policy that would allow firefighters and paramedics who experience a traumatic event while on duty to take paid time off to care for their mental health. We wholeheartedly support it.
The city approved a similar provision for police in October, after a new state law went into effect requiring law enforcement agencies to create mental health leave policies for peace officers impacted by an on-duty traumatic incident. But that law didn’t require firefighters or other high-stress jobs to be included.
At a recent meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee, council member Cara Mendelsohn called it “urgent” for the city to extend this benefit.
“We have to make sure we have the resources available to help them,” she said. “They’re seeing horrible traffic accidents with mangled bodies. They’re working on people, lifesaving operations, that aren’t always successful. It’s a very difficult job.”
Mendelsohn is right about the stress of the job. A Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman told us the department has lost two firefighters to suicide in the past few months. According to a 2021 report from the National Institutes of Health, firefighters are more than three times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Firefighters have an increased prevalence of suicidal ideation, plans and attempts (46.8%, 19.2%, and 15.5%,) compared to the population at large (13.5%, 3.9%, and 4.6%).
Details of the policy are still being worked out. The committee discussed extending this benefit to all city employees, a move which is estimated to cost about $705,600. The estimate to offer the benefit to all 2,000 fire department employees was $504,000 per year. In the end, the committee unanimously approved recommending the extension for all city employees eligible for the police and fire pension fund. That would include all sworn or certified workers like firefighters and EMS, but not, for instance, 911 dispatch.
The benefit would provide 40 hours of leave per fiscal year, which would not accumulate and would not be transferable. The need for leave would have to be verified by a licensed mental health professional. And requests for leave would be kept confidential.
According to a report by the city’s director of human resources, Nina Arias, only two other Texas cities have extended this benefit since last year’s law went into effect: Denton and Stephenville.
It was Mayor Eric Johnson who originally proposed this idea. The next step is to bring it to the full council.
As we’ve said before, mental health is an important issue to keep an eye on right now, coming out of the pandemic, especially for jobs like these. The city should take care of those who take care of us.