The final passing of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was a major milestone for first responders.
James Zadroga was a New York City detective whose heroic response to the terrorist attacks the morning of Sept. 11 became the direct reason for his death. Promising to provide both financial and medical aid to first responders of that terrible morning, the act in his name was finally signed in 2011 by President Barack Obama, five years after its initial draft in 2006.
Situations that arise for first responders continue and keep getting worse, first responders are still fighting for benefits to cover the injuries they sustain on the job. Since the notorious 2016 Orlando, FL Pulse nightclub shooting last year, first responder Gerry Realin has been denied financial assistance to help cover the treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he now suffers, having to tag and carry 49 bodies out of the building.
PTSD is not considered a work-related injury in Florida. Senate Bill 516 could change that.
Realin, a veteran, is supporting his wife and children off of a GoFundMe account and paid leave, is counting on Senate Bill 516. It was introduced by Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), the legislation would amend a law that keeps first responders from claiming mental injuries under workers’ compensation.
Twenty-five year practicing psychiatrist Dr. David M. Reiss, out of Rancho Santa Fe, CA, was working in a Massachusetts hospital when he choose to leave and volunteer for three days in Florida after the shooting.
“I was there on a volunteer basis to help organize local therapists. Just being there one day — three days after it happened — and I would say it took me two to three months to really be back to myself,” Dr. Reiss said. “I didn’t see the actual trauma; I just saw people walking around like zombies. You could see the terror in the people’s voice and face and that was secondhand.”
Dr. Reiss said the odds of a first responder going to a private doctor, paying a co-pay and dealing with the stigma of going into the mental health system discourages many from getting help. First responders are seen as heroes, heroes have a stigma of not getting sick or having problem. You can see where they could have an issue dealing with a mental health issue. “Whereas if they file it through HR at work it becomes much easier to help people,” he added, “And that helps everyone, including the employer.”
Dr. Reiss explained that there are many other factors — whether traumatic or non-traumatic stress —make the system both emotionally and physiologically more vulnerable, making PTSD more likely to present itself.
Dr. Datz, a psychiatrist who is very engaged with the Louisiana State Bar Association and with national education programs for workers’ compensation professionals, said first responders must work quickly under pressure, and are constantly making split-second life or death decisions.
“If you are potentially limited in your attention, memory or concentration, you could make a wrong, slow or too impulsive of a decision,” Dr. Datz said of a first responder who suffers from PTSD. “At best that may cause an error, at worst it could result in fatality or grave error.”
Add on “long shifts and sleep deprivation,” to PTSD and it “becomes an additive effect,” she added. Dr. Datz said PTSD is a disorder of vigilance. “If someone is on a call at a fire and they hear a child screaming and that scream reminds them of their trauma, they could freeze and over focus on that rather than the possible danger around them,” she explained.
Both Dr. Reiss and Dr. Datz agree the proposed bill would benefit first responders who suffer from PTSD. Meanwhile, as new bills are being passed, the Zadroga Act was reauthorized in 2015, promising coverage for 9/11 responders until 2090.
As a volunteer firefighter myself I absolutely understand how PTSD can happen. You are running into a burning building when everyone is trying to get out. You put yourself on the line ahead of all others. You sacrifice so someone else can live. The sights are not always pleasant and some people have trouble separating work from home or that image gets ingrained into your mind. It is good to know that there are politicians out there fighting to get all first responders help and coverage if they need it.