Former firefighter on local’s PTSD bill: ‘Troubling’ not to back it

Updated Feb 10, 2018
Democratic state Rep. Wellington Matt Willhite has proposed a bill that would make first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder eligible for workers compensation. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Democratic state Rep. Matt Willhite, of Wellington, questions why the Florida League of Cities opposes his bill that would make first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder eligible for workers compensation in an age of a nationwide drug epidemic and increased street violence.

“They don’t want to make sure that one of their employees is in the best mental and physical shape to take care of the people that they’re there to represent?” he asked.

In Boynton Beach, commissioner Joe Casello — a former firefighter in Massachusetts for 30 years — announced support for the law on his Facebook page after finding out the city came out against the bill without the elected officials’ knowledge.

Boynton has since announced it is in support of it.

“For us to push back on it like this, it’s very troubling,” Casello said.

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The Florida League of Cities, in a letter published in late January on its website, said it couldn’t support the PTSD legislation because of the expense to taxpayers to foot the bill for the first responders’ mental injuries.

Willhite said the fiscal analysis of the bill isn’t the “doom and gloom” that’s being portrayed. He said an analysis done in the state Senate shows the law would add less than a $7 million increase to the annual workers compensation statewide.

Police, firefighters and paramedics choose professions serving the public that put them in front of horrors daily that few ever witness in a lifetime: bodies riddled with bullets, young people dead from overdoses, children abused, drivers horribly injured in car wrecks.

It takes a toll, Casello said.

“I’ve lived it. I’ve been there. I’ve done it,” he said. “To this day I can’t listen to bag pipes without bursting into tears because of all funerals I went to.”

Six firefighters died in Casello’s hometown. He knows colleagues who turned to drugs and alcohol and who have committed suicide.

“It definitely affects you emotionally,” he said. “We’re very good at masking our true feelings and it doesn’t happen until you get home.”

The proposed law — House Bill 227 — would make it so first responders would be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for mental or nervous injuries regardless if the injuries are accompanied by physical injuries. The proposed law is being heard in a subcommittee.

The Palm Beach County League of Cities hasn’t taken a position on the bill and likely won’t, said executive director Richard Radcliffe.

“We want to make sure our first responders are taken care of and are protected for sure and if something happens to them that they get the treatment.”

But Radcliffe’s organization usually supports the stance of the state league, he said. And Willhite’s bill is another case of an attack on home rule , a buzz phrase for the current legislation session when state elected officials hand down an unfunded mandate on how city leaders should govern their municipalities, he added.

“We kind of, in general, let each city decide depending on their situation but in general it’s an unfunded mandate until they nail down what the parameters are and what the costs are going to be,” he said.

Other Palm Beach County municipalities have not taken a position on the PTSD bill.

Royal Palm Beach hasn’t because it contracts its fire rescue and police services with the county.

West Palm Beach, which does have its own fire and police agencies, is “monitoring this closely,” a spokeswoman said.

At first, Boynton Beach opposed the proposed law unbeknownst to the city commissioners until they read a Feb. 1 news article out of Tampa .

The commission never voted on it.

Casello said he received phone calls from firefighters questioning the stance, leading him to meet with City Manager Lori LaVerriere. Casello said he learned at the meeting that it was a staff decision based on cost.

“I said that’s the price we need to pay,” Casello said.

Boynton Mayor Steven Grant said he backs the proposal but would want to see some specific measurements tied to it.

Commissioner Christina Romelus declined to comment on the topic, and Commissioner Mack McCray didn’t return a request for comment. But if the commission voted on the measure, it appears the majority would have supported it.

Vice Mayor Justin Katz said the jobs of first responders have radically changed with the increased shootings and the opioid epidemic.

“The things first responders are seeing today, they’re traumatizing,” Katz said. “This bill legitimizes and gives them more support or gives them more of an ability to kind of open up about what they’ve experienced and what they’ve seen with the overdose deaths.”