Something firefighters’ should know

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Posted by T. Michael Nicholson on May 09, 1999 at 21:57:29:

“Something firefighters’ should know”

I would like to tell you of an important flaw in the Workers’
Compensation System for volunteer firefighters in New York.
In October of 1972, six months after I became an active member of
the Bushnell’s Basin Volunteer Fire Department, I was struck by a car
while directing traffic at a fire scene. I was only seventeen years old.
My injuries included two broken legs, a fractured skull, a stroke,
collapsed lungs, and numerous internal injuries. I was in a coma for 3.5
weeks. My parents were told that I had a 50-50 chance to live.
When I came out of the coma I was expected to live a normal life
and be glad that I was alive. I was awarded $80.00 per week from the
Workers’ Compensation Board.
I tried in vain to live a normal life. After I got out of the
hospital, it took me an extra three years just to finish High School.
Then I tried to work. From 1975 until 1992 I had twenty-seven
different jobs. Finally it was suggested by a friend that I have a
neurological exam to see just what my problem was with keeping myself
employed. A neuropsycholgist, Peter Sorman, Ph.D., determined that I
suffered lasting effects from my traumatic brain injury.
Apparently this went undiagnosed because there wasn’t the
technology then that there is today. I was told that I have emotional
discontrol because of the constant pain that I still suffer from in my
back, legs and feet. Over stimulation is also a problem. Also, I have
long and short term memory dysfunction. I have learned different methods
to cope with these problems.
Since 1972, I have suffered with my physical limitations as well as
the traumatic brain injury. Still I was receiving only $80.00 per week.
I thought that this was unfair and not right.
My wife and I spent hours in the local library looking up the
workers’ compensation law as it pertained to volunteer firefighters in
New York State.
I discovered that the benefits that permanently disabled volunteer
firefighters may receive are locked into the year that they are injured.
I was injured in 1972, so my benefit dollar was locked at $80.00 per
week. But, if you take the same volunteer firefighter and his injury
occured in 1992, his benefit dollar is locked at $400.00 per week. See
the difference?
I did, and I wanted to do something about it. I couldn’t just sit
around and be glad that I was alive like I was told back when I had my
first introduction to the Workers’ Compensation System.
I went before the workers’ compensation law judge in 1993 with
information with information from my physicians about my newly explained
traumatic brain injury. I said that I believed I was entitled to more
than $80.00 per week.
The Judge said that I was not entitled to any more money, and then
said, ”If you want to do anything about this, then change the workers’
compensation law.”
I deceided I would. I met with my local state legislators, and we
drafted a personal bill that would direct the workers’ compensation
board of New York to redetermine my award of disability benefit as if I
had been injured on or after July 1, 1992.
I was told that all I was doing here was grasping at straws,
hanging my dreams on rubber hooks. Nothing like this had ever been
attempted; the possibility of my bill ever getting out of the Assembly
and Senate Committee’s for a vote, and then being sent to the Governor
for his signature was really slim to none. Numerous people told me to
give up. Some were downright rude.
I wrote letters to members of the Assembly and Senate legislative
committees, as well as to every member of the Assembly and Senate asking
them to support my personal bill.
I spoke before numerous Town Boards, Village Boards, & County
Legislatures all across the State asking for Memorializing Resolutions
in support of my personal bill. I also received the backing of the
Firemans’ Association of the State of New York, which strongly lobbied
the Legislature in support of my bill.
With all this backing, plus the unamimous bipartisian support in
both houses, my personal bill S-1657 was passed and signed as Chapter
481 of the Laws of 1996 by Governor George Pataki.
I also began working on getting legislation passed that would raise
the level of benefits to other volunteer firefighters and ambulance
workers who were injured before July of 1992. There were some totally
and permanently disabled volunter firefighters in New York who were
trying to make ends meet on benefits that are locked into the 1967
benefit rate of $65.00 per week. Last year that bill was also passed by
the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Pataki.
Volunteers in other states also suffer with disability benefits that
are locked into the year that they were permanently injured.
Workers’ Compensation laws vary quite a bit from state to state.
Some give volunteers the same disability coverage that a career
firefighter in a neighboring community would be provided. Some states
provide no disability benefits under workers’ compensation at all for
volunteer firefighters injured in the line of duty, because it’s
perceived to be a no loss job. The reasoning in the states that don’t
cover volunteers is that since they weren’t being paid, they haven’t
lost any wages because of their injuries. Some states regard volunteer
firefighters as employees of the municipality where they serve, others
address them as ordinary workers, and in some states its left up to the
local jurisdiction to decide.
Some states actually allow workers’ compensation to be optional,
where fire departments don’t necessarily have to buy into workers’
Even if workers compensation covers volunteers, some states have
limitations on that coverage; Some cover volunteers only for official
duties on the scene of an emergency, but may not cover firefighters
injured in training or in fund-raising events.
Some states include cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs); some don’t.
Some pay benefits in a lump sum, some pay a percentage of wages before
the injury, with benefits ranging from 40 to 100 percent of pre-injury
wages, some benefits are paid for a limited amount of time; others are
paid for the duration of the disability.
I have contacted Congressman Thomas Reynold’s with this information
asking that he sponsor federal legislation across the country that would
make it mandatory for each state to provide disability benefits for it’s
disabled volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers that
include a cost-of-living adjustment.
Just think how much volunteers save us in taxes. People and
businnesses count on the local volunteers to respond to calls for help.
If there were no more volunteer firefighters willing to respond to these
calls because they knew that if they were ever seriously and permanently
injured they would not be able to support themselves or their families.
We would have to rely on the paid firefighters from the cities to answer
these calls for help. Just imagine how high taxes would be then.
This could happen!
I hope you’ll consider this to be a newsworthy story to help
educate other volunteer firefighters across the country as to what could
happen to them if they were ever seriously and permanently injured at an
authorized emergency response.


T. Michael Nicholson
922 Fenwick Lane
Victor, NY 14564

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