The Ranks of the First Responder Special Class is Growing

Robert Wilson

Legislative bills in Montana and Idaho that will grant certain benefits and presumptions for first responders appear to be headed to a successful result, bringing those states in line with many others who have recently followed the same path. The Montana proposal would provide automatic presumptions for certain medical diseases and illnesses, while the Idaho effort will establish psychiatric and mental health benefits for first responders who experience mental trauma without a correlated physical injury (mental-mental).

In other words, first responders in those states will become a special class of employee, granted benefits denied to other people who lack the appropriate job title.

There. Someone has to say it.

Everyone wants to support first responders, and in today’s environment anyone questioning positive actions in support of first responders will be immediately thrust into a negative light. So be it. As indicated, some things just need to be said.

I have tremendous respect for first responders. It takes a brave and dedicated person to run towards danger while everyone else is running away. They risk life and limb to serve and save, and they deserve our utmost gratitude and respect. However, the relentless drive across the nation to provide extended and (IMHO) at times unreasonable benefits is misguided and unfair to the general public they are dedicated to serve.

My home state of Florida was one such entity, passing PTSD legislation for first responders last year in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. While the final bill that passed was much more reasonable than what almost made it through, it established two distinctly different sets of standards for people who witness and endure the same mass casualty incident. Hostages taken during a violent bank robbery who witness co-workers being murdered get no benefits under Florida law. But the paramedic who zips the bodies into the bags after the danger has passed is eligible for benefits if they are traumatized by what they saw.

Let me be clear on that point. The people who experience the violence, endure the action, who live through the maelstrom physically unscathed; they get nothing. The people who arrive after the fact, however, are entitled to benefits, with the primary determinant of eligibility being their job title.

I understand the example I present is a limited one. There are many situations where emergency personnel are confronted directly with danger and must respond with potentially trauma inducing actions. But there are many circumstances where the two-class citizen scenario will now exist. To look at a real-life incident, if the Parkland shooting were to occur today, that Sheriff’s Deputy who famously stood outside the doors and did nothing would be entitled to PTSD benefits in the state of Florida. The teachers, students, administrators and janitors inside the building hiding behind doors and under desk’s watching others get killed, would get nothing.

Judge David Langham wrote a very interesting piece earlier this week about a man in Michigan who died after falling into a heated vat of sulfuric acid. He had burns over 100% of his body. His co-workers had to fish him out of the tank and run him through a special chemical shower before first responders arrived. Certainly, witnessing such an event could be traumatic. Seeing the extent of those burns could cause strong emotional responses in people. In many states those co-workers (with the exception of a few who burned their hands while rescuing him) would be eligible for no benefits, while the responding medical team would be.

As a point of clarification, Michigan does offers special conditions for emergency personnel for certain physical conditions, but not PTSD. The state does consider mental disabilities as compensable, if arising out of actual events of employment and not “unfounded perceptions,” and if the employee’s perception of the actual events is reasonably grounded in fact or reality. That isn’t exactly a slam dunk on the road to compensability. The onus is on the employee to prove a correlation. However, this example placed in many other states stands on its own.

Across the nation we are steadily creating a two-tiered benefit system, where one special class of employee will be entitled to benefits based solely on their position. The emotional argument combined with the power of unions and influential political support make it a difficult concept for most politicians to oppose. I believe it is a trend we will come to regret.

We all want to support our first responders. I really get it. Except that I am not a first responder, which means when it comes to certain benefits and privileges, I really don’t.

 

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