COLUMBUS, Ohio (WDTN) – Earlier this month the Ohio House of Representatives passed their version of the Bureau of Workers Compensation Budget, and for the first time ever it included a provision that would extend workers compensation to first responders that develop PTSD as a result of their duties.
It was 22 years ago when Don Estepp became a firefighter. At the time he was 35 years old and a commercial carpenter looking for a career change.
“It was tough but after hanging drywall and framing; kept me in shape and ended up being a good career change,” said Estepp.
Estepp says it was a dream come true as he always enjoyed helping people.
“Not too many people get the opportunity to have a career of helping people and getting paid is a bonus,” said Estepp.
From the get-go Estepp loved his job.
“It was the greatest blessing in the beginning,” said Estepp. “Just energetic, always exercising, staying motivated to be in good shape so that when people needed help you were ready to help them.”
When the calls would come in, he was ready, and the same thoughts raced through his mind.
“Here we go, this is what it’s about. Let’s make a difference,” recalled Estepp.
Things changed in 2016.
A serious of calls altered his life forever.
“About three years ago, had some kid deaths; three of them in 2016, and started getting burnout; started having nightmares; just trying to find a way to get some help,” said Estepp fighting back tears. “Great job wasn’t so great anymore.”
Estepp had developed PTSD and sought treatment from a variety of sources from non-profit organizations to medical facilities.
“My brother called me before I went to this last [facility] and he said, you know, ‘Brother don’t leave me,’” recalled Estepp. “We need help.”
The veteran firefighter says his PTSD followed him everywhere from home to work and back again.
“It impacts your wife, your kids; you know, when your kids start telling you, ‘Dad, you’re angry all the time; Dad we can’t talk to you,’ you know you’re having problems and you know you need help.”
And Estepp says your co-workers can see it too, at least he could when he recognized it happening to other firefighters before him.
“You can see it, you know, guys stop coming out to the table; you know, your laughter disappears, you just can’t handle the stress of that; let alone the isolating and trying to figure out am I going crazy? Because you never think it will happen to you,” said Estepp.
It did happen to Estepp, and he estimates it’s happening to tens of thousands of firefighters across the country right now.
“Not too many people want to talk about that area of our job, you know, and we hide it as long as we can,” said Estepp.
For Estepp, his PTSD negatively affected his ability to perform his duties at the level the public and his colleagues deserved.
“I wasn’t able to focus, my memory started going, it was and is life changing but I’m finding my way back,” said Estepp.
What he described was incredibly dangerous for the public and the other firefighters around him, as he says it doesn’t take much for something really bad to happen when you are distracted or not on top of your game when moments matter in a life and death situation.
As Estepp’s career has progressed he has noticed, as have many firefighters, calls for service have been on the rise. He recalls when he started, “The run count was a third of what it is now with almost the same amount of people.”
In some places, firefighters are being called back out again as soon as they arrive back at the station from the last emergency; no time to process what they have seen or dealt with, “And there’s no time to grieve these children; it’s just you’re right back in service, go take another run, go help someone else,” said Estepp.
They have no options. They go again not only because it’s their duty but because there is no one else who can.
Despite all of this, some in the business community do not want PTSD to be added to the list of things first responders can claim workers compensation for.
Kevin Shimp is with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
“When the worker’s compensation was enacted through our constitution in 1912, and since then to today, there has always been a requirement of a physical injury before you can see compensation under the system,” said Shimp. “This bill represents a change for the first time that would allow a purely mental claim to be compensated, and so we see this as a detrimental inclusion into the worker’s compensation system.”
Regardless that it only applies to first responders and is non-presumptive, meaning they would still have to prove the PTSD is work related, Shimp says the physical requirement is a great gatekeeper to making sure the injury was work related.
“With mental claims, it’s harder to diagnose and its harder to determine whether it was truly work related.”
Some firefighters disagree with the difficulty of such a determination.
“There’s so much blood on our hands and our shoes, if they would let some of that blood that gets on us, that stains our mind, if they had to see some of that I think maybe they would understand,” said Estepp. “I wish I wasn’t depressed. I wish I didn’t have the blood of the kids on my hands that I do, I just don’t know how else to ask for help.”
There are programs in place that are becoming more and more popular within the first responder profession that are designed to help mitigate the effects of the trauma they see and deal with on a daily basis.
However, these programs only blunt the effect and for some PTSD from an event may still occur.
In those situations, the chamber says benefits are already available for them.
“We do respect the work of our first responders and our businesses rely on them to keep them safe and to keep their inventory intact and everything so, this is not a slight towards first responders,” said Shimp. “We’re looking at this from the 30,000-foot perspective of this bill represents for the first time in over 100 years of worker’s compensation law that a purely mental claim will be compensable.”
Ultimately, Shimp says, the chamber does not want first responders getting access to this because if they do the private sector will want it next.
“We feel that first responders should seek treatment for PTSD, they should use their private health insurance or their private disability insurance and that their unions presumably bargained for, for them.”
The Ohio Senate is currently reviewing the budget bill and will need to make a final decision to either keep the policy in place or remove it, next week.