Responding To False Alarm Can Be An ‘Emergency’ For Health Insurance Purposes

Under the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, public safety officers are entitled to permanent employer-paid health insurance if they are injured under certain circumstances. Under the Act, in order for a public safety officer to be eligible for insurance coverage under this Act, “the injury must have occurred as the result of the officer’s response to fresh pursuit, the officer or firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency, an unlawful act perpetrated by another, or during the investigation of a criminal act.”

In 2001, Pierino DeRose was a patrol officer for the Highland Park, Illinois Police Department, a position he had held for eight years. DeRose received a call regarding a residential burglary alarm that had been triggered. He did not activate the siren or the overhead lights on his police car because doing so might have alerted any intruders in the residence he was approaching. The weather was rainy and there was very little lighting. Normally, two officers would respond to the type of alarm DeRose was investigating, but he handled the situation alone because the Department was understaffed that night.

After checking the front of the house, DeRose proceeded to the back to check if anyone was behind the house and to check for open doors or broken windows. DeRose approached a sliding glass door, “looking for any movement in the house,” and as he approached, he slipped, fell, and sustained an injury to his shoulder. DeRose continued his investigation and determined that the alarm had been a false alarm.

When DeRose applied for health insurance benefits under the Act, the City rejected DeRose’s request. The dispute wound its way to the Illinois Court of Appeals.

The Court began by defining the term “emergency” to mean a situation that “is urgent and calls for immediate action.” In the eyes of the Court, the question was whether DeRose reasonably believed he was facing an emergency.

The City argued that DeRose’s decision not to activate his lights or siren proved that he was not responding to an emergency. The Court demurred, finding “those factors are not dispositive of DeRose’s view of the exigency of the situation. As for DeRose’s decision not to activate his lights or siren, he explained that he opted not to do so because he feared alerting any intruders in the residence, but that he nonetheless traveled to the scene as quickly and safely as possible. We agree with DeRose that it is possible that an officer would respond to an emergency without using lights or a siren because doing otherwise might pose the type of additional danger DeRose described. In any event, we see a distinction between a situation that requires immediate action and one that requires immediate and hurried action, and we think that the term ‘emergency’ is broad enough to encompass not only a situation that necessitates the use of lights or sirens to expedite police response, but also a situation in which police must respond immediately but need not expedite their arrival through such disruptive means.”

The City also argued that DeRose could not reasonably have believed he was responding to an emergency because there was evidence that most of the alarms the Police Department received were false, especially during storms. The Court found this argument “would lead to at least two unfortunate results. First, the City would have officers delay their responses to potentially dangerous situations based on the notion that many similar situations in fact presented no bona fide need for response – it would have officers assume that no emergency exists before ruling out the possibility of danger. Second, the City would have the statistically likely outcome of a call control whether the call is an emergency, regardless of what actually happens on the call. We do not think the Employee Benefits Act supports either result; we instead hold that a call requires an officer’s immediate response, and is therefore an emergency, until the officer eliminates the possibility that the call is bona fide.”

DeRose v. City of Highland Park, 2008 WL 4880190 (Ill.App. 2008).

This article appears in the January 2009 issue