PTSD Help for First Responders, More Tools to Fight Livestock Disease Advanced in Legislature

Feb. 26, 2020, 6:17 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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It could be easier for first responders to get help with post-traumatic stress disorder. And it could be harder for livestock diseases to spread in Nebraska, under bills advanced by the Legislature Wednesday.

The first responders' post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD bill aims to help police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and frontline workers in prisons and social services who deal with horrific events.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, who served as an EMT for that community and Utica, talked about some things he’s seen.

“Until you've had the opportunity to go on a fire call or rescue call and watch a colleague or a friend burn up in a fire, or do triage on a family of six and lose five of the six and place kids in a closet because they're not going to survive during the triage, you can’t understand what these firemen and parameds (paramedics) and people go through,” Kolterman said.

Currently, it’s up to a first responder to show their mental injury comes from something extraordinary that happened on the job. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Brewer, would change that to presume for purposes of workers compensation coverage the injury comes from the job, if certain conditions are met. Brewer said mental injuries can be hard to detect.

Using himself, an Army veteran wounded multiple times in Afghanistan, as an example, Brewer said he didn’t come to terms with his injuries until he was literally forced to see a speech therapist and psychologist.

“They were able to kind of slow walk me through issues, challenges, problems and reveal what the true issues were, and that you had to come to deal with these problems or else they would haunt you the rest of your
life,” Brewer said.

To qualify for the presumption, instead of having to prove the cause of their injuries, first responders would have to show their mental condition didn’t show up when they were screened for employment. They would have to have evidence from a mental health professional. And they would have to have participated in something called “resilience training,” to teach them how to deal with trauma.

Sen. Mike McDonnell, formerly a firefighter and Omaha fire chief, said that training is crucial.

“On an annual basis, you're going to go through this training. And we're going to make sure your injury, that mental injury -- as important as any other injury -- we're going to try to prevent it. If it happens, we're going to treat it and we're going to help you deal with it. So you don't deal with it yourself in other ways, and you can continue to serve and do the job that you love,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said taking the training would be voluntary, but the expected cost of it was the major initial cost of the bill, estimated at $442,000 a year. Senators voted 42-0 first round approval of the bill.

While it was being debated, Sen. Kate Bolz took time to pay tribute to someone in the kind of situation it could cover. She talked about Santino Akot, a prison caseworker who, the Lincoln Journal Star reported, was attacked Saturday by a state penitentiary inmate and is in critical condition. Bolz referred to Akot’s background as a young man driven from his home in Africa by civil war in the 1980s.

“Not only is he a Department of Correctional Services officer, he is also an immigrant from Sudan and was one of the ‘Lost Boys,’” Bolz said. “He is a caregiver for his family and is a breadwinner for his family. And he is someone who I appreciate fully and want to commend for his hard work and his service at the Department of Correctional Services.”

Bolz added that lawmakers are still trying to address dangerous conditions in Nebraska’s prisons.

“We continue as this legislative body to look for solutions to staffing and overcrowding issues. And we do keep Mr. Acot in our thoughts and prayers,” she said.

On another subject, senators gave first-round approval to updating laws designed to protect the health of livestock in Nebraska.

Sen. Steve Halloran, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said the bill, LB344, and an amendment are important to prevent the kind of economic damage that’s happened elsewhere in the world.

“One quarter of the world's pigs died in one year in China due to the African swine fever. We need to avoid the weaknesses demonstrated by China in that country's lack of animal disease prevention and control. LB344 as amended with AM2486 will help Nebraska avoid an economic hit, as was experienced by China,” Halloran said.

The proposal would, among other things, augment existing criminal laws by giving the state Department of Agriculture power to levy administrative fines on producers for bringing livestock into the state, if the state veterinarian has declared an embargo on them. It got first-round approval on a vote of 30-0.