First responders run toward danger, risk their lives and witness tragedy first-hand, but if all of that results in mental distress, they can't get workers' compensation for it under current Florida law.
“We see things that you can only imagine in a movie and then we’re expected to get right back on the truck, go to the next call without time to process it," said Pete Wallwork, who suffers from PTSD as a result of his career as a firefighter.
However, state lawmakers have filed several bills that would make first responders eligible for workers’ comp for mental injuries even if they’re not suffering from a physical injury.
"I started to withdraw from family, friends," Wallwork said. "Further and further from any social interaction. Hyper vigilance. I was always worried about bad things happening."
Wallwork has worked in fire rescue for 28 years. He was diagnosed with PTSD two years ago.
“You’re limited to what your healthcare plan will provide," Wallwork said. "If it was under workers' comp then it may open up even more doors.”
He said counseling hasn't done much for his PTSD yet, but his service dog, Max, has helped him cope.
"He’s been a tremendous comfort for me," he said.
Jose Gonzalez, president of IAFF 2928 Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County said PTSD is more common among first responders than people once thought.
"For the longest time, it was thought to be only a military problem as far as folks coming back from war zones, but now they’ve done studies and they’ve realized that first responders are just as adept to having these types of problems," he said.
It's also difficult to prevent.
"We can take steps to prevent the physical injuries i.e. proper lifting techniques, proper techniques in whatever aspect of the job that we do," he said. "Mentally, it’s the calls that we see on a daily basis."
Firefighters hope the public will get behind bills in the state legislature.
"That way they can truly get treated because the injury, the non-physical injury is occurring on the job," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said firefighters in Palm Beach County can go through what’s called the Employee Assistance Program right now to get treatment. He said a mental health professional decides when and if they’re fit to go back to work or they may have to retire or try to get disability.
He said workers' compensation focuses more on treatment to get the first responder back to work.
"They’re worried about not just losing their job but their career," he said. "In this industry, we have very specialized skill sets. You can’t necessarily go anywhere else to do this unless it’s with another fire department and if you have something that’s affecting you, it needs to be diagnosed and treated."