Loudoun County Paves the Way: Code of Virginia Amended to Improve Behavioral Health Benefits for Volunteer Fire and Rescue Personnel
May 2, 2017
By Karen McQuaid, Volunteer Manager, and Christine Langley-Obaugh, Executive Liaison, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue
Fire and EMS personnel are often exposed to scenes of terrible tragedy, the images of which are imprinted into their long-term memories. Firefighters and EMTs are not immune to the same physiological responses to exposure to trauma that everyone else experiences. The difference is that such dedicated individuals choose to accept this as a byproduct of placing service above self.
In Loudoun County (VA), fire and rescue services are provided to nearly 400,000 residents though an integrated volunteer and career service identified as the Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue System (LC-CFRS). The System is comprised of 15 member volunteer agencies with over 800 active responders and a corresponding compliment of career personnel numbering approximately 500. In the summer of 2013, career and volunteer responders handled two particularly challenging calls within a matter of weeks. The first entailed a local high school student that was abandoned by her friends after a night of drinking, resulting in her death. In the second, a beloved member of the LC-CFRS chose to take his own life. Two lives tragically lost. The impact upon the community and the Fire and Rescue System was substantial.
Loudoun County has long been on the forefront of supporting volunteer services and is only one of two government entities in the Commonwealth of Virginia that extend worker’s compensation benefits to all of its volunteer fire and EMS personnel. Tragically, as was learned in 2013, the extension of certain benefits, including Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits, where members could access behavioral health support, was actually prohibited by state law. At that time, according to the Code of Virginia, EAP was considered a health and wellness program. Further, fire and rescue volunteers were not eligible to participate under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Beginning in the 1980s, the LC-CFRS established and utilized a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team, but it had recently disbanded as alterative models for providing support to emergency services personnel moved to the forefront. At the cross-roads of shifting away from CISM and towards another model, LC-CFRS found itself unprepared to provide appropriate behavioral health support for its more than 800 volunteer members.
Chief of the System W. Keith Brower, Jr., who has been a member for over 40 years, saw the need to remove the legislative barrier as an imperative. “Not being able to provide our emergency responders, whether career or volunteer, the resources to deal with the emotional stressors being placed on them on a daily basis is an injustice … and we can fix it,” he said.
The process began to modify the Code of Virginia to allow municipalities the ability to provide volunteer emergency responders with EAPs inclusive of mental health counseling. Garnering full support from the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Chief Brower sought legislation to amend the Code of Virginia. During the 2016 General Assembly Session, Senate Bill 79 and House Bill 233 (companion bills) were passed and signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe effective July 1, 2016. This legislation contained the following verbiage:
“…allows any locality to fund the cost of a volunteer’s participation in mental health treatment and counseling program that is offered to individual members of approved volunteer fire or rescue companies and is comparable to an employee assistance program offered to paid employees of the locality.”
On September 6, 2016 the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to extend the county’s current behavioral health contract to include active LC-CFRS volunteer personnel. All members of the LC-CFRS, as well as their family members living in the same household, now benefit from the County’s contracted EAP agents, including a behavioral health clinician with extensive knowledge in serving fire and EMS personnel. Dodie Gill, LPC, a behavioral health specialist with over 25 years of experience working with fire and EMS personnel and a team member of Lytle EAP Services, shares: “The traumatic exposures our first responders experience have a physical impact on the body and brain. To mitigate symptoms related to these exposures, we provide education and techniques to manage these symptoms to enhance their quality of life. We honor the work of our emergency responders and are committed to serving them.” It is pertinent to note that EAPs provide a plethora of assistance with personal or job-related problems, including marital, family, financial, work/life, emotional, stress, drug or alcohol abuse, and problems related to work or volunteering.
Senator Jennifer Wexton, a patron of the legislation, emphasized, “Mental health services are critical for our first responders, and I was proud to carry legislation last year that expanded these services for our volunteers. Our volunteers deal with the same emergencies and crises that our career personnel do, and having coverage for both will allow us to ensure the wellness and safety of all our first responders.”
Brad Quin, Chair of the Administrative Operations Committee and President of Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company, noted, “The members of the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company (and all volunteers) are delighted to have this benefit. Previously, these services were unavailable unless the volunteer companies paid for the service themselves. System Chief Brower’s personal dedication to securing this benefit for volunteers goes a long way to demonstrate the commitment to volunteers in our combined system.”
Loudoun County is honored to have had the opportunity to lead the effort which culminated in the extension of significant benefits to its members and we are hopeful that additional jurisdictions can follow suit. In fact, a recent survey indicates four Virginia Fire-EMS agencies have obtained, and several are working towards, locality support to provide the critical behavioral health counseling to their members.
The success of this effort underscores the importance of having effective long-term relationships with legislators at the local and the state level. The changes that occurred could not have been achieved without the support of, and regular interaction with, elected officials. Additionally, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet has been an ardent advocate for the combination system, always seeking opportunities to ensure inclusiveness, cooperation, and support.
To learn more about the experience of the LC-CFRS, contact Karen McQuaid, Volunteer Program Manager, at email@example.com.