DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - The Dallas City Council will vote on whether to offer firefighters up to five days of mental health leave a year, after the city's Public Safety Committee gave its unanimous approval to the plan Monday, Feb. 14.
The move would expand on a new state law, which took effect last September, requiring law enforcement agencies to provide mental health leave to licensed peace officers when they experience a traumatic event while on duty.
In Dallas, police officers can now take up to five days, as long as a counselor signs off on the need for it.
Mayor Eric Johnson suggested the committee consider extending the leave to firefighters as well in a recent letter to its chair, council member Adam McGough.
"It is imperative that we consider the mental health needs of all of our first responders," wrote Johnson.
"We're very concerned. You know suicide in general is one of the top killers of firefighters across the country," said Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association.
In the last three months, he confirms two Dallas firefighters have died by suicide, a fact mentioned during Monday's committee discussion.
A study for the Ruderman Family Foundation found firefighters are more likely to die from suicide than from an on-duty death, as they are five times more likely than the general population to suffer from PSTD or depression.
"The car wrecks, the shootings, you know, all of those, those things that we experience on a day to day basis. Every time we're on shift we're seeing multiple, multiple things that most people don't ever experience in their entire lives and we're seeing it on a regular basis," said McDade.
Dallas wouldn't be the first city to offer the leave to a larger group of employees than required by law.
Denton has already approved offering it to firefighters there.
Dallas city staff have proposed going even further to extend the benefit to all city employees.
The city's human resources department estimates the cost to include an additional 8,000 employees, including firefighters and civilian workers, would be more than $700,000 dollars.
"We do have employee civilians in the police department, crime scene technicians and call takers and 911 operators and other individuals, who currently do not receive this benefit," said assistant city manager Jon Fortune, explaining the argument for broadening the program.
Council members on the Public Safety Committee signaled their support for doing so.
"I've walked out of city hall with 911 operators in the lobby crying. I mean, we're going to need to do this for them as well," said council member Cara Mendelsohn.
"We've had a hard time with staffing and that is a very high stress position," agreed council member Gay Donnell Willis.
The committee suggested the larger proposal be presented to a committed on government performance and financial management for further review.
"But we know without any additional research how urgent it is that we do this for our firefighters," said Mendelsohn, making the motion for a vote to make sure firefighters aren't made to wait.
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