David Dangerfield’s suicide was shocking. Almost as surprising was learning about the relative lack of help available for local first-responders with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s time to change that.
Dangerfield, 48, a battalion chief with Indian River County Fire-Rescue, shot himself Oct. 15 after putting on his dress blues, posting a farewell note on his Facebook page, driving to a wooded area off State Road 60 and dialing 911. His father, Bruce, said his son aggressively fought PTSD for years, including visits with counselors three times a week for 18 months.
“27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid off (sic),” the firefighter wrote in his final Facebook post. “It haunted me daily until now.”
What surprised me is Florida employees, first-responders included, are not covered for PTSD help under workers’ compensation paid for by their employer unless they are physically injured. In other words, a firefighter who sprains his ankle and is traumatized would be eligible for counseling and other services paid for under workers’ compensation. Didn’t sprain your ankle? You’re not covered, even if you are traumatized by unmentionable things over the years.
Why? First, there is the belief that people can fake mental illness. Second, as Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler argued, Florida’s strategy to recruit new business is to keep the cost of doing business, including insurance, as low as possible.
“It’s problematic for a lot of reasons,” said Bichler, who has worked with Indian River County’s firefighters union.
His firm represents Gerry Realin, a hazardous materials team officer with the Orlando Police Department who helped clean up the Pulse nightclub carnage.
What he saw during four hours of nonstop work after the mass shooting was horrific. After, his wife told WMFE’s Abe Aboraya, Realin wasn’t the same.
“(Realin) would wake up screaming, or grab her wrist, thinking he was grabbing one of the victims,” Aboraya wrote. “He tried to work for two weeks, but he couldn’t sleep, and he passed out on the job.”
Bichler hopes to get the workers’ compensation exclusion fixed during the next legislative session. Incoming state Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told me workers’ compensation will be a key issue, largely because of proposed double-digit increases in premiums. He said he wants to look into the PTSD issue, too.
Locally, Dangerfield’s death has prompted the Indian River County Commission to review how its fire-rescue agency handles PTSD issues. Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said employees suspecting they have PTSD could use an employee assistance program for help.
“But I don’t think you’re going to cure this in (the maximum) six visits,” O’Bryan said, adding he plans to work with management and rank-and-file members to come up with solutions. There could be models in other areas the county can use.
Martin and St. Lucie counties have critical incident stress management teams – made up of first-responder, nursing and mental health professionals and clergy – employees can meet with to help resolve their issues. The counties have offered their help to Indian River County.
O’Bryan and John O’Connor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2221 in Vero Beach, agreed education must be a key component of any reform.
“We’ve got to find a way to get more (firefighters) to come forward (and let us know they have issues) without a stigma being attached,” O’Bryan said.
“They’re kind of like their own fraternity,” O’Bryan said of firefighters and law enforcement officers, who see things traditional mental health providers might not relate to. “They’ve got to be able to relate.”
O’Connor also is passionate about the issue.
“It requires money, time and dedication,” O’Connor said. “It’s unfortunate something like this has to happen to draw attention to (PTSD treatment).”
The final words on Dangerfield’s Facebook post were simple: “My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.”
Maybe Dangerfield’s final rescue call will be for his first-responder brethren across the state. Let’s hope it leads to fair treatment for victims of work-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Laurence Reisman, Community Editor
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