Monday, August 16, 2010

Self Dispatch or Insurance Co. Saving Scratch?

On April 16, 2005, Andover, IA volunteer firefighter Justin Faur attempted to rescue a co-worker who had fallen into a manure pit at his place of employment. Both men later died.

At issue with the fire department’s workers compensation insurance carrier was whether Faur was acting as a firefighter or as an employee as a result of his efforts to save his co-worker. The insurance company (Travelers) contended that Faur was not acting as a firefighter at the time.

This was just handed down recently by the Iowa Supreme Court. (http://qctimes.com/news/local/article_801f5f46-a755-11df-903b-001cc4c002e0.html?oCampaign=hottopics)

Read about the workers’ compensation hearing here: http://decisions.iowaworkforce.org/workerscomp/2008/February/FAUR,%20JUSTIN%20-%205016580A.doc

For volunteer firefighters, the argument often comes up that, since most don’t have assigned shifts, that line between on duty and off duty becomes very blurred. In this case, it appears that the question may be: when is a volunteer firefighter acting as a firefighter or as a private citizen with firefighter training?

In my opinion, our government and our judicial system can’t seem to reconcile legislation and its interpretation that affect some of the distinct, cultural differences between career and volunteer fire departments.

Career firefighters have clearly defined on-duty and off-duty hours. A shift for them is usually 24 hours and is spent at the fire station. They don’t punch a time clock, but time sheets are kept for payroll purposes. They can be “re-called”, if a large incident requires additional manpower. They are dispatched through a central dispatching agency.

A volunteer firefighter is theoretically available 24 hours a day, if they are within their response area, can leave their full time job to respond or the other activities that fill their lives.

It is not unusual for volunteer firefighters to witness an emergency in their fire district and to call it in to a dispatching center, expecting the appropriate agency to be dispatched. When possible, the firefighter will initiate assistance, if it is within their scope of training and it is safe to do so.

It was clear that Iowa Workers Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey understood the volunteer firefighter culture in his initial ruling in favor of Justin Faur’s survivors.

So, when is a volunteer “on the clock”?

In my opinion, the clock begins as soon as the firefighter recognizes the existence of an emergency that requires the assistance of his fire department, makes the call to the dispatching agency or has someone else call 911 and they can begin to render aid, however limited.

For a judge to say that a volunteer firefighter is not “on the clock” at that point is to remove a very key component that is critical to life safety issues in the rural setting. It also flies against the ideal of “neighbors helping neighbors”.

Again; Commissioner Godfrey “gets it”, as he recognized the importance of minutes and even seconds where lives were at risk.

For this model to work in the eyes of the Iowa Supreme Court in the case of Justin Faur, he would have been required to leave his co-worker face down in the manure pit, wait for the dispatching agency to properly tone out the Andover, IA Fire Department and wait until they arrived in order for benefits to be paid.

Faur’s mistake may very well have been to not wait for his fire department so that properly protected responders could enter the hazardous environment of methane gas, but the strong emotion of having an unresponsive co-worker in a pit and a desire to help someone needing it was too strong to keep Justin Faur from risking his life to save another.

I don’t know what was going through Justin Faur’s mind at the time of the incident, but I know that anyone familiar with hog or cattle confinements understand that methane gas is a by-product and a dangerous one at that and I’m sure that Justin Faur knew it, too. He entered the pit, knowing the danger. Very few “private citizens” would have done it and some firefighters might not have, but Justin Faur did.

And had Faur not been a member in good standing with the Andover, IA Fire Department, I might be inclined to side with the Iowa Supreme Court.

However; this is not the case.

Two factors leap out when reading available information on this incident: (1) As an employee, Faur recognized the emergency and had 911 called and (2) His firefighter instincts took over and he attempted to affect a rescue.

So, his surviving family members should be entitled to all benefits accorded to a firefighter; be it insurance death benefits, PSOBs or workers compensation benefits from his fire department.

If the Iowa Supreme Court doesn’t see it that way, then in my opinion, the case should be appealed at the federal level, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court.

When you tell someone to call 911, the presumption is that they will call and the appropriate emergency agencies will respond.

Firefighter Justin Faur did NOT self-dispatch.

He placed “self” above all else and paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life.

And that is not Emotion speaking; that is Logic and Fact speaking.

I oppose the practices of self-dispatching and jumping calls and that isn’t the issue here.

In my past, I witnessed many incidents, called them in and went to work in my capacity as a volunteer firefighter. Period.

Faur might very well have initiated his rescue, anticipating that the additional help of his fire department would be there very soon. Who would know that any better than someone who had been on that department for the past two and a half years?

Under “normal” circumstances, this would be a subrogation issue between two insurance companies, but in this case, the Iowa Supreme Court chose to trash a very logical and articulate decision by Commissioner Godfrey and narrow the language/definition of “summoned to duty only through official channels”. And the Court is basing THAT on the assumption that Faur did not receive the pager tones.

If the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in this matter is allowed to stand, then the entire volunteer response system may come under their review.

As an example: imagine if they would rule that you are not covered as a firefighter while in your personal vehicle on your way to the station or to a call.

Tell me that wouldn’t significantly change the landscape of what volunteer fire departments do!

THIS case needs further review AND further discussion.

Let me know your thoughts.

TCSS.

The article submitted is protected by federal copyright laws under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella. It cannot be re-produced in any form without the expressed written permission of the author Art Goodrich, also known as ChiefReason. Please visit www.fireemsblogs.com and my blog www.chiefreasonart.com.
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1 comment:

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