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South Carolina: Fighting for First Responders

South Carolina: Fighting for First Responders
Published: Jun. 3, 2016 at 11:32 PM EDT
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SOUTH CAROLINA (WTOC) - Most states don't track suicides by occupation, but those in the emergency services industry insist there has been a sharp increase in the number of men and women taking their own lives because of the mental stresses of the job.

That's why they say now, more than any time before, it's critical that first responders can get the help they need. In South Carolina, the inability of first responders to collect worker's compensation for mental stress may be adding the problem. However a bill introduced to the state legislature could turn that around.

"Not often does a month go by that you don't see from different fire fighter blogs or organizations and things, that a firefighter has committed suicide because of on-the-job-related stress or PTSD issues," said Seth Holzopfel, IAFF Local 4614.

"The police officers, the firefighters, the EMT's that we ask to go into the most dangerous situations and really subject themselves to circumstances that could certainly cause, and you would almost expect it to cause, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is very real, they don't have any protection from that," said Senator Greg Hembree, Horry and Dillon counties.

However, a bill in the South Carolina Senate would fix that. It would cover PTSD as a compensable injury under worker's compensation. It's a small fix to the loophole first responders find themselves stuck in when they are suffering from mental illness.

"You stay in the business long enough, you have your demons. You have those calls you'll never forget that will never leave you no matter what," said Austin Pace, SC EMT.

Whether it's a tragic car crash or a fellow firefighter killed on duty, the images can haunt even the toughest first responder.

"Psychologically, they change. Their personalities change. They're not the same person they were before. I've seen it happen, and I know it's real," said Senator Hembree.

The bill also takes away the designation that the experience or situation causing the mental trauma has to be extraordinary or unusual.

"A traumatic event is in the eye of the beholder, and I think that's the difficulty with trying to create some sort of definition. I don't know how you define watching a child die as a result of a car crash. It's horrible anyway you slice it, but it may not be as bad as, you know, watching one burn to death," Senator Hembree said.

Some in the South Carolina Senate still have reservations about a bill that allows your first responders to use PTSD as a workers comp claim. They are convinced many police, firefighters and EMT's will use the opportunity to cheat the system, making false claims to gain paid leave.

"I was told, blatantly to my face, that firefighters would fake PTSD to get this coverage. That's a slap in the face to the firefighters and police officers that serve the state of South Carolina, to say, 'We don't care about your mental health," Holzopfel said.

"I think their biggest objection is just the unknown, really the unknown cost," said Senator Hembree.

Florence County, near Myrtle Beach, claims this bill could raise workers comps claims by up to $35,000 per-year.

Overall, statewide estimates written into the bill from the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, project an increase of $1.7 million, assuming first responder claims go up by 20 percent per-year.

"These aren't malingerers that are trying to game the system. These are brave men and women that do what we ask them to do, and because of it, they're not going to be the same people as they were before," said Senator Hembree.

"This type of legislation is a "pay now or pay later" type of legislation. You can either pay for a new firefighter to come on the job, or you can pay for the care of a firefighter; the one that's been there with the experience, and what I think is owed to him for his years of service and the things he's done for his community," said Holzopfel.

The legislative session wraps up in a few months, meaning time is running out for this bill to get any traction.

"We're saving lives, saving marriages, saving families, saving careers. That's what we're doing with this piece of legislation," Holzopfel said.

Georgia's workers compensation laws do allow for coverage when an employee experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are one of a majority of states that do. Across the border in South Carolina, that is not an option, yet. This bill could change that.

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