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Fire stations need revamp

Fire chief Les Kenworthy discusses the needs of the department July 12 in Twin Falls.

BOISE — A bill that would extend worker’s compensation to first responders suffering from psychological injuries is headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 1028 passed the House on a 59-10-1 vote Thursday, with the support of most Magic Valley lawmakers.

The bill would make police, firefighters, and other first responders with “clear and convincing” evidence of a work-related psychological injury eligible for worker’s compensation. Under current law, first responders with a mental injury are only eligible if they also have a physical injury.

Twin Falls Fire Chief Les Kenworthy told the Times-News he believes the change in statute is needed, citing rising rates of post-traumatic stress injury and suicide among first responders.

“It happens too far often, and it’s happening more and more to firemen and police officers,” Kenworthy said. “There’s a new awareness for all of us, that we know we need to be more aware and look for different treatment options.”

The Twin Falls Fire Department already has some procedures in place to help first responders who have witnessed especially traumatic events — such as the death of a child — including peer support groups and counseling sessions with mental health professionals, Kenworthy said.

“It’s unfortunately something we’re dealing with nowadays,” Kenworthy said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s good that we’re recognizing some of these things early.”

Many other fire and police departments across Idaho similarly have programs in place already that offer mental health support and resources to first responders, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, noted on the House floor Thursday.

But “this one final step, where they’ve gotten to a place where they need additional counseling, is not present,” Erpelding said. “This fixes that. This makes that possible.”

Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Nezperce, said she voted against the bill because of concerns about the potential financial impact.

Erpelding said he did not foresee the bill having a significant impact on the worker’s compensation program, but noted that there is a sunset clause built into the bill as a “safety valve” so lawmakers can make changes four years down the road if necessary.

Three lawmakers from District 27 — Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley — were the only south-central Idaho representatives to vote against SB 1028.

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