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Workers comp expands for volunteer responders in some states

While volunteers serve as first responders in communities nationwide, the workers compensation coverage they receive for illnesses or injuries while responding to emergencies can vary greatly depending on the states in which they work.

For example, a search-and-rescue volunteer in Routt County, Colorado, who reportedly suffered multiple injuries last month after he was swept up in an avalanche during a rescue operation will be covered under the county’s workers comp insurance, which covers medical expenses and 66% of lost wages. His volunteer search-and-rescue team operates under the control of the county sheriff’s office, according to local news reports.

Volunteers represent a substantial portion of first responders in the United States. Sixty-nine percent of all firefighters in the United States — more than 788,000 — are volunteers, according to the Greenbelt, Maryland-based National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit association representing the interests of volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services. Most U.S. fire departments are staffed by volunteers, with 19,915 all-volunteer fire departments out of a total of 29,980 fire departments across the country.

Throughout the country, most volunteer first responders who work on teams under the direction of a municipality, county or state are eligible to receive comp benefits for injuries sustained while responding to an emergency, experts say. But to what extent volunteers are covered for various illnesses and injuries varies state by state.

“There is absolutely no standard workers compensation format across the country for volunteers,” said Mark Schmitt, vice president of operations at Pittsburgh-based Provident Agency Inc., which offers supplemental comp coverage for first responders. “It is dictated and determined by each state. Some states are very strong in what they require and other states do virtually nothing. The one consistency is workers compensation plans, regardless of the level of coverage the state provides, traditionally only focus on bodily injury cases.”

When a volunteer suffers an injury or illness that can’t be directly tied to a bodily injury, comp coverage enters a gray area, Mr. Schmitt said.

In 2014, 91 firefighters died in the line of duty, 56 of which were volunteers, according to data compiled by the National Volunteer Fire Council. The leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters is stress and overexertion, resulting in 61 deaths nationwide in 2014. Of those deaths, 59 were caused by heart attacks. The second leading cause of death among firefighters was vehicle crashes, which claimed the lives of nine firefighters.

“We know that firefighting in general is a strenuous occupation,” Mr. Schmitt said. “They go from zero to a fast pace in preparing for a response and responding to an emergency. That causes stressful reactions in the body. Couple that with physical exertion, temperature extremes and heavy equipment that must be worn or carried, and it all adds up to a very physically demanding job. We know that takes a toll on the body, but workers compensation doesn’t view it that way.”

Sometimes there are gaps in coverage where there is an initial injury, but a long-term illness isn’t immediately evident, Mr. Schmitt said. For instance, responders might get stuck with dirty needles or cut themselves on broken glass at the scene of an accident and be exposed to bloodborne pathogens. Often, comp will not cover testing for hepatitis, HIV or other infectious diseases, nor will it typically cover antivirals or other treatments until the injury converts into an illness, Mr. Schmitt said.

That trend may be shifting in some states, however. Alex Keoskey, a certified civil trial attorney at Teaneck, New Jersey-based law firm Decotiis, Fitzpatrick, Cole & Giblin, L.L.P., said an area of growing interest in some states is mandating comp coverage for presumptive injuries suffered by volunteer responders, including cancers that are more prevalent in people who respond to fires.

The New York State Senate approved presumptive cancer coverage for volunteer firefighters Jan. 24 by a unanimous vote, a move the Albany, New York-based Firemen’s Association of the State of New York applauded in a press release issued the same day. The bill extends existing coverage to include melanoma and a wide variety of cancers, including digestive, lymphatic and neurological cancers. The state assembly will now consider a version of the bill.

“Thirty-five other states in the nation have already passed presumptive cancer legislation,” said Firemen’s Association President Ken Pienkowski in the press release. “New York’s paid firefighters already have this important coverage, but volunteers do not.”

Another area where volunteer responders are gaining additional benefits in some markets is for psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say.

“A lot of workers compensation statutes now allow for coverage of PTSD for full-time responders,” said Mr. Keoskey, who noted most states and municipalities provide counseling and psychiatric care for responders who are impacted by events they witness on the job. “But for volunteers, that’s something new.”

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