LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association is shedding light on two new laws in the state looking to meet some of the most essential needs for their responders.
The union recently selected Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) as their legislator of the year after his help with two bills that became law in the recent legislative session.
“They do so much, I mean they put their lives on the line for us every day,” Tucker said Tuesday.
Act 529 provides 168 hours of military leave time for firefighters for annual training requirements or other duties performed in an official duty status.
“Our guys were running out of leave – they were exhausting their military leave then having to use their own leave or unpaid leave to both serve their community and serve the country,” Arkansas Professional Firefighters Political Director Matthew Stallings said.
But there is another problem impacting public safety employees that is taking its toll: mental health struggles.
“There’s nothing normal about the things we’re seeing and dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” Stallings said.
Stallings plays an instrumental role for firefighters in getting their needs into bills to go before lawmakers. He said he has seen the consequences of team members staying silent too often.
According to the CDC, law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Act 537 provides up to 12 counseling sessions per year for public safety employees, covered by their employer.
“There’s this idea that we think, you know, being brave and courageous means stoicism in the face of anything we might face, but it takes a lot of courage to recognize that you need to go talk to somebody and then to be able to talk to other people about that,” Stallings said.
As the law starts playing out in January, Tucker said they will be collecting data to look at things like how many people use these services and how much time they’re taking away from work.
He and legislators will take that information and improve the law in the next session accordingly, with the sunset date of Act 527 being in 2024.
He said he already has ideas for legislation next session to continue meeting mental health needs of public safety employees. Stallings is prepared to continue working with lawmakers on the list of pressing needs.