NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Firefighters across Tennessee are walking hundreds of miles to raise awareness for the mental health struggles first responders face and push legislation in the state capitol.
The walk comes as studies from 2022 found firefighters have higher suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) risks. Studies also found suicide happens twice as often with firefighters compared to the general community, and PTSD occurs in 57% of firefighters.
On the two-day, 27.3-mile walk, departments will carry the 303 Project flag. The 303 Project is non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the impact of mental health disorders and their results related to PTSD, including suicide and substance abuse among first responders.
“PTSD is definitely something that makes you feel very alone,” said Colton Young, vice president of the Wilson County Firefighters Association. “I look forward to being able to see and hear the stories where we are able to help someone that way they don’t feel alone, that way they know they can reach out.”
Tennessee firefighters are also pushing for PTSD support at the state capitol with a new bill —the Dustin Samples Act.
The legislation would update Tennessee law to ensure care under worker’s compensation is accessible to firefighters who receive a PTSD diagnosis. The bill is named in honor of Capt. James ‘Dustin’ Samples, a firefighter who died by suicide in late 2020 after 22 years of service to the Cleveland Fire Department.
“We get into the fire service to try and help others and now others are trying to help us,” said Young, “I think it’s time to let them help us.”
“We are working to lead by example to show the next generation of firefighters that they don’t have to pretend the traumas they are exposed to aren’t painful,” said Matthew Tomek, president of the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association. “We want to reduce the cultural stigma and ease the path to professional support so that firefighters can lead healthy, long lives while serving a critical role in the health and safety of their neighbors.”
The Dustin Samples Act will go before a legislative subcommittee on Wednesday and then move to the Senate and House floors next week.