For First Responders and Workers' Comp, What is Normal?

21 Feb, 2020 Bob Wilson


court decision in Arizona this week does more than potentially set a new precedent for First Responder benefits in that state; it also forces us to look at the expectations of the job, and what may be considered “normal” within the course and scope of employment.

In 2017, a Gila County sheriff's deputy was conducting a welfare check when a veteran described as “manic” charged at him while holding a 12-gauge shotgun. The deputy and his partner fatally shot the gunman. 

The deputy suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, but Gila County denied him workers' compensation. Appeals to the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA) upheld the denial. In Arizona, mental benefits are available under workers’ comp, but the condition must be the result of "unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to the employment."

On Tuesday, the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed that decision, and ordered that benefits be awarded.

The Industrial Commission initially ruled that the case fell within the normal scope of duty for Gila County Sheriff's Office deputies, including "deciding whether to shoot or not shoot a subject in the line of duty.” The AZ Court of Appeals ruled that the Commission erred in focusing on the deputy’s job duties and training to prepare for danger. It said they should have concerned themselves with the stress he experienced after the attack.

Appeals Court Judge Kenton Jones wrote for the majority, saying that that the Commission appeared to be focusing on the event that led to the deputy’s PTSD, a dispatch to a report of threatened violence. In his opinion he conceded that "may be routine." He also wrote, however, "The stress of the event — which here included staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun held by a screaming manic gunman, careful repositioning to avoid injury to a fellow officer, and shooting and killing another human being at point-blank range — may not be."

There is little doubt that benefits for First Responders have quickly become the singular “hot topic” in workers’ comp over the last year or two. Legislatures all over the country have either passed or are considering bills that greatly extend workers’ comp benefits for police, paramedics, firemen and others who fall under the First Responder label. These extended benefits can cover both physical and mental conditions, and in many cases the efforts are based far more on political principles than scientific ones. I have been openly critical of this trend, not because I don’t want to care for those who protect us; but rather I oppose the creation of a two-tiered benefits system where the primary determinant for benefit awards becomes a job title. In many of these states, First Responders will qualify for benefits from assisting at a tragic event, while the victims of the tragic event will get nothing. To that end, it could be argued the court in this case is simply becoming another mechanism to continue this expansion of compensability. 

But it goes deeper than that. It begs the question, “What is normal for a First Responder?” What can and should people entering into these positions realistically expect during the course and scope of their employment?

In this case, the issue was a law enforcement officer suddenly confronted with a life-threatening situation that forced him to utilize his training and, as a result, take a human life. Now, the reality is that most law enforcement officers will never have to take a life during the course of a career. Some will never even draw their weapon. A study by Pew Research tells us that only 27 percent of law enforcement officers have ever fired a gun on duty – and they note that does not mean they actually shot someone. So, the court may be correct in their judgement that this event was outside the realm of “normal” for the position.

What are the expectations, though? I sincerely doubt anyone enters a position in law enforcement without contemplating the reality that the job itself may one day put them in the position of killing someone. The expectations, and the training, are in fact geared to that possible outcome. In fact, any First Responder is recognized as one that may eventually put themselves directly in harm’s way – that is why they are called First Responders. If the threat was not a “normal” part of the job, they likely wouldn’t prepare for its unlikely eventuality.

So, the Arizona Appeals Court may have split hairs pretty finely on this issue. The potential to have to kill someone might be a normal expectation of the job, but actually doing so is not. As this trend to greater expansion of coverage, both by courts and legislatures, continues, government and private employers of those considered First Responders may want to consider enhancing the training they provide. 

It will become far more urgent for their employees not only to know how to physically defend themselves and others, but how to psychologically confront the aftermath of a violent incident. More psychological training should be included for people in these positions. Nowhere could there be a better example of the adage, “An ounce of prevention.” Employers need to start better preparing their folks on the front line for any psychological repercussions, because the pound of cure appears to be gaining mass. 

The one thing we can realize when it comes to workers’ comp and First Responders; nothing is normal anymore.

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