After 30 years of service, Walter Villavicencio, a member of San Francisco, CA Local 798, had witnessed firsthand the behavioral health challenges his colleagues faced following traumatic experiences in the line of duty.
These challenges, stemming from incidents like post-traumatic stress, frequently led some firefighters to addiction and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Villavicencio remarked: “I wanted to do something that would have an impact, so I got my peer support training and joined Local 798’s Behavioral Health Committee.”
He further emphasized the significance of the IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment by stating: “I realized quickly that there was a gap in services, especially services geared specifically to emergency responders.”
The Center of Excellence stands out as the only residential treatment center designed solely for fire service members.
It offers specialized care for distinct behavioral health challenges, encompassing post-traumatic stress and substance use disorders.
However, the journey to making the Maryland-based Center of Excellence accessible for San Francisco firefighters was not straightforward.
The primary obstacle was that most health insurance plans provided by the City of San Francisco were limited to medical services within California, leaving out the Center of Excellence.
Villavicencio took the initiative by coordinating with department management, San Francisco Health Service System representatives, health insurance providers, and other involved parties.
He noted: “The health service system officials understood quickly that San Francisco members going through a behavioral health crisis needed more treatment with their profession in mind.”
He added a note of gratitude, stating, “The people at the Center of Excellence were really helpful there.”
Recognizing Villavicencio’s relentless efforts, Kelly Savage, Center of Excellence Outreach Director, honored him with the first IAFF Center of Excellence Behavioral Health Champion Award at a 10th District educational event in the previous year.
Savage said: “Walter reminds us that sometimes all it takes is one person to create meaningful change because he never stopped knocking on doors, the Center of Excellence is an in-network provider.
“Lives will be saved for years to come.”
Local 798 Secretary Adam Wood expressed his appreciation for Villavicencio’s dedication, stating: “While we do have behavioral health treatment options in our area, none mirrors the services provided at the Center of Excellence.
“Our members can now get the treatment they need when they need it.”
Looking ahead, there’s more good news for the firefighters. The West Coast Center of Excellence is slated to open its doors in 2024 in California, providing Local 798 members with access to both establishments.
The collaboration between Walter Villavicencio, Local 798, and the IAFF Center of Excellence highlights the significant strides being taken to address the unique behavioral health needs of emergency responders.
The initiative to include the Center of Excellence in insurance plans reflects a broader commitment to ensuring that those who protect our communities receive the specialized care they deserve. It also sets a promising precedent for similar endeavors across the country.