First responders run towards crashes, emergencies and catastrophes, not away from them. And for some, their experiences are leading to post traumatic stress disorder. But in Florida, first responders who develop PTSD on the job don’t get compensated, unless they have a physical injury as well. Now there are efforts at the statehouse to change that. A note to listeners, the following story includes frank discussion of death and suicide.
For many first responders, post-traumatic stress disorder is becoming part of the job. The condition follows exposure to death, injuries or violence. Those affected may have flashbacks, nightmares, and they can become aggressive or destructive. Michael Gluchowski from Springhill is a retired New York state trooper.
“For seven years I was in a nightmare. PTSD is a parasite in the brain. If it’s not taken care of, controlled, then it grows and it eats your brain,” Gluchowski said.
For some first responders, PTSD is deadly. Megan Vila’s brother Stevie LaDue was a firefighter paramedic for the City of Tampa.
“The research is out there. Firefighters are three times more likely to die by suicide than they are to die in the line of duty,” Vila said.
LaDue developed PTSD after 29 years of service, responding to countless traumatic incidents. He ultimately wasn’t fit to work.
“He along with his Captain Lawson Carter filed a worker’s compensation claim on his behalf. They pulled him out of work, and he was seeing the city psychiatrist for two months,” Vila said.
The city denied LaDue’s workers comp claim, because he didn’t have a physical injury as well, a requirement under current Florida law.
“My brother was forced to pay back the two months of work that he missed. And this put him into a deeper depression,” Vila said. “My brother took this to me on my back patio before he took his life. I’m sorry. And I am making it my mission to change this law.”
Now Vila is working to ensure first responders get the medical treatment and paid leave her brother was denied. Plantation Democrat Lauren Book is sponsoring a bill in the Senate that would allow compensation for PTSD on its own.
“It’s our duty to address this growing crisis and support the men and women who never fail to support us and our communities,” Book said.
The measure would only apply to first responders who witness or arrive at the scene of certain incidents like murders, suicides, and mass casualty events. And a licensed psychiatrist would have to diagnose the condition. Dozens of first responders and family members came to a recent Senate committee to show their support for the measure. Rocco Salvatori is with the Florida Professional Firefighters Association.
“Because of the stigma associated with talking about some of these things, this may have been just as scary for some of these people as wrestling with a bad guy, or reaching for their gun, or running into fire, or driving their ambulance towards machine gun fire,” Salvatori said.
The Florida League of Cities spoke against the measure, citing concerns about potential fraud and costs to local government. It’s not yet clear what the change could cost governments or insurers. But Megan Vila says under a similar law in Minnesota, the impacts have been minimal.
“The claims that were diagnosed and got treatment, from 2013 until now, they’ve spent $1.2 million. $1.2 million. I mean really, that’s nominal with what we spend as a state, and what we could potentially give to our first responders,” Vila said.
The committee ultimately passed the bill. It has three more stops to go before the floor.
The move comes at a time when a first responder to the Pulse night club shooting was fired after developing PTSD. Omar Delgado says he was wrongfully dismissed because of his condition, and he’ll lose out on retirement benefits because of it.