Few institutions have as much impact on the daily lives of firefighters as does the California State Legislature.

Under the dome of the State Capitol, decisions are made that shape how firefighters are paid, the benefits they can bargain for, the working conditions they face and the resources they need to perform one of the most demanding and stressful jobs on the planet.

This year, state lawmakers will make decisions that will affect the fire service – and the men and women on the front lines – for decades to come. California Professional Firefighters and its affiliates are front and center in those decisions. As a result, firefighters are poised for one of the most consequential legislative years in recent memory.

CPF’s legislative package, all poised for final votes at the Capitol (as of this writing), include:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Injury: SB 542, CPF’s landmark legislation establishing a PTSI presumption and access to mental health care for firefighters;

  • Peer Support Confidentiality: AB 1116 provides confidentiality protection for conversations between firefighters and peer counselors and establishes statewide standards for peer support;

  • Community Paramedicine: AB 1544 gives all departments the option to set up community paramedic programs, to get patients to relevant help and ease ER wait times;

  • 9-1-1 Fire Dispatch: SB 438 ensures that 9-1-1 fire dispatch will remain with the responsible and accountable public agencies, and won’t be farmed out to private contractors;

  • Retiree Pension Protection: SB 266 ensures that retirees don’t have to pay the price when CalPERS makes a mistake in calculating pension benefits.

  • Funding for Local Public Safety: ACA 1 makes it easier for local governments to ask voters for funding to protect critical public services.

CPF is also stepping forward to lead on legislation aimed at expanding the state’s capacity to conduct essential fire prevention and land management (AB 1668).

In addition to working on priority firefighter legislation, CPF’s influence is also felt within the state budget process. The 2019-2020 state budget includes hundreds of millions in new dollars supporting efforts to fight the state’s massive wildfires. The budget also fully funds firefighter apprenticeship through the CPF co-sponsored Cal-JAC, to help recruit and train the next generation.

“Our founding mission is to ensure that the issues that matter to firefighters, their families and their communities are heard and addressed in the halls of the Capitol,” said CPF President Brian K. Rice. “The legislative package we are pushing is aggressive and laser-focused on the jobs, health and safety of our members.”


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HEALING OUR OWN

SB 542 (Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park)
AB 1116 (Tim Grayson, D-Concord)

Firefighters are witness to horrors few can imagine. The weight of these experiences can overwhelm even the strongest. On any 24-hour or 48-hour shift, firefighters may be called on to make life and death decisions, witness a young child dying alongside their grief-stricken family, be exposed to communicable diseases and known carcinogens – all while risking bodily harm or even death in the course of their duty.

Left unaddressed, these horrors can threaten a career and lead to harmful behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse and family problems. Sometimes, they can kill. In any given year, a firefighter is four times as likely to die by their own hand than in an on-duty incident.

Aggravating the challenge of post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) in the fire service are the cultural and personal barriers to admitting that there’s a problem. Many fear adverse job action if they admit to having a behavioral health issue. “Breaking the stigma” requires access to care and a clear recognition by labor and management that it is a real health and safety crisis.”

CPF’s Firefighter Behavioral Health Legislative package addresses both of these issues:

SB 542 creates a rebuttable post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) presumption in the state’s workers’ compensation system for firefighters. Because of the demonstrated link between PTSI and the job of being a firefighter, SB 542 would require that the employer – rather than the employee – would have the burden of proof in any workers’ comp claim for mental health. This landmark legislation would give California firefighters one of the first PTSI presumptions in the nation.

AB 1116 sets statewide standards for firefighter peer support and crisis referral programs and, where those programs comply with the state standards, confers confidentiality for communications between peer supporters and firefighters. Peer-to-peer support is one of the most important ways to address PTSI and job-related mental health issues. Nobody knows the challenge of firefighting like those on the job. In order for peer support to work, it needs to be available, and it needs to be confidential. AB 1116 addresses both of these issues, helping to ease the path for firefighters to seek help without fear of adverse job action.

“Post-traumatic stress is an injury … no less in need of treatment than a broken arm or leg,” said CPF President Brian Rice. “Taken together, these measures will save lives, raise awareness of job-caused injuries and remove the stigma that prevents firefighters from seeking help.”


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COMMUNITY PARAMEDICINE: BETTER OUTCOMES FOR VULNERABLE PATIENTS

AB 1544 (Mike Gipson, D-Carson/Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys)

Over the past four years, some two dozen California communities have been testing a common-sense program aimed at improving patient care and reducing costly emergency-room wait times.

Community paramedicine empowers specially trained paramedics to guide certain patients – such as frequent 9-1-1 callers or individuals with chronic alcohol or mental health problems – to more appropriate care than an acute care hospital. These patients often would be better served at a sobering center or mental health facility than an overcrowded ER.

“In one case, we had a patient who contacted 9-1-1 (dispatch) 330 times in a calendar year,” said Patrick Corder, an Alameda City community paramedic and president of Alameda City Firefighters Local 1689. “A lot of these frequent users are drunk, but the system doesn’t really allow for any option other than an emergency room.”

Currently, 24 jurisdictions have been conducting pilot programs testing various community paramedicine concepts, with follow-up studies through UC San Francisco. The evidence from UCSF is overwhelmingly positive – in nearly all cases, community paramedicine programs had a positive impact on patient outcomes. In many cases, the programs also eased emergency room wait times, ensuring that firefighters spend less time monitoring patients in the ER and more time in service.

Every agency in California should have the option of implementing community paramedic programs. AB 1544 provides that option.

Under the measure, local EMS agencies would have the option to develop a community paramedic program targeting frequent 9-1-1 users and alternate destinations. The LEMSA would be empowered to customize an agency’s community paramedic program to meet the specific needs of the local community. Public fire agencies would have the right of first refusal in implementing any CP program, to ensure that those who are most trusted within the communities – front line firefighters – are the ones offering the care and support.

AB 1544 is backed by emergency room physicians and mental health professionals, including the Steinberg Institute, a Sacramento-based facility dedicated to mental health care.

“Community paramedics do not replicate or take over any existing service – they simply are filling gaps in the system,” said Corder. “Community paramedicine has proven its worth. Every California department should have the option to develop these services, suited to their local needs.”


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STOPPING PRIVATE 9-1-1 DISPATCH

SB 438 (Robert Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles)

The most sacred responsibility of any local government is protecting the lives and safety of its residents. When seconds count, residents expect their local 9-1-1 dispatch to deploy the closest and fastest response possible. It’s their sworn duty.

Recently, some local EMS agencies have sought to step in and hand 9-1-1 dispatch services over to a private contractor. Historically, such privatization efforts have resulted in higher costs to residents or a reduction in service … sometimes both. A 2016 New York Times investigative story documented what can happen “When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers” – slower response times, technical failures, corporate bankruptcies and, in some cases, allegations of poor service leading to patient deaths.

By placing emergency medical response decisions exclusively in the hands of a private contractor, the potential for cost-based medical decisions increases, which, in turn, threatens the standard of care. The for-profit model implemented in San Joaquin County has taken EMS response out of the hands of local departments and put it in the hands of corporate providers. The result: loss of accountability to taxpayers and, in some documented cases, delays in medical response.

“When lives are on the line, every second counts and fire departments are in the best position to respond quickly and provide vital services on scene,” said CPF President Brian K. Rice. “The responsibility of local agencies for making this happen should not be checked off to anyone’s bottom line.”

SB 438 – sponsored by CPF and co-sponsored by California Fire Chiefs Association – sets a clear standard: it prohibits any local agency from outsourcing its local emergency dispatch services to a private for-profit entity. If a local agency wishes to contract its 9-1-1 dispatch, it can only do so with another public agency or through a joint-powers agreement.

Backed by labor and management, SB 438 has enjoyed strong, nearly unanimous bipartisan support in the Legislature to date, but it faces a stern test in the fall.

“SB 438" noted President Rice, "ensures that core public safety responsibility is not passed off or compromised by motivations other than what matters most – patient care.”


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RETIREE PENSION PROTECTION

SB 266 (Connie Leyva, D-Chino)

In 2012, a firefighter employed by the City of Davis retired after serving the public for nearly 30 years. Before retiring, the firefighter twice asked CalPERS to give her an estimate of her fixed-income benefit – benefits that she and her city had paid into the system to provide funding.

Five years after the firefighter retired, CalPERS presented a nasty surprise: After the fact, they decided that some of these promised and paid-for benefits shouldn’t have been allowed. Accompanying this notice was a bill for $42,000 and a note that the monthly pension payment was going to be substantially reduced.

Even though the benefit was promised and paid for by the employer, it was the blameless retiree on a fixed income that took the hit. Sadly, there are similar examples in law enforcement and among school employees where a benefit – promised and paid for – was retroactively disallowed.

“Our retired firefighter wasn’t at fault, but they were being asked to pony up and sacrifice a hard-earned retirement,” said CPF President Brian Rice. “That’s not right.

SB 266 closes this cruel loophole. It protects earned retirement benefits that have already been promised and paid-for in cases where a benefit has subsequently been disallowed by CalPERS and the individual has already retired. It also sets parameters for resolving future disputes over an active and retired employee’s collectively-bargained CalPERS’ pensionable compensation.

Re-introduced after being sidetracked in 2018, SB 266 enjoys strong, bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature. Final votes will be coming this summer.

“If CalPERS’ pensionable compensation is misapplied, it should be corrected, but that doesn’t mean they should be able to break a promise to a retiree living on a fixed income,” said Rice. “ These benefits were promised and paid for. They should not be taken from a retiree who did nothing wrong.


THE PRICE TO PAY FOR SENIORITY

By Samuel R. Swift

Most people involved in workers’ compensation understand cumulative trauma – wear-and-tear work injuries resulting from years of repetitive motion and/or exposure to harmful environments. Many, however, don’t yet grasp the importance of these cumulative trauma cases, especially for our first responders.

A troubling drumbeat is growing from some policy makers who want to eliminate these wear-and-tear types of claims in the name of cost savings, leaving little protection for workers when they need it most.

Working through pain is a badge of honor for many California employees, especially those who earn seniority and credibility over years. Over the years you’ve powered through probation, the steady punishment of working on the front lines, and endured the physical toll the job extracts: bad backs, knee, hand and shoulder pain.

Imagine having worked through the pain all that time, a reliable employee with long years of untarnished. The struggle becomes too much and you seek treatment for cumulative injury, but your employer denies a workers’ comp claim because your injury was not caused by a specific accident.

These denials are, regrettably, all too common. Indeed, employers, particularly public agencies, are constantly arguing for the elimination of cumulative trauma claims.

Captain John – not his real name – is a veteran firefighter with 31 years on the job with his department. He and his wife of 30 years have two children and a young grandchild, and he was on track to retire after 35 years with a service pension. As with all veteran firefighters, the arduous work of the job has taken its toll over those three decades. Two neck surgeries, painful lower back surgery, injuries to both knees that will eventually require total knee replacements.

In Captain John's case, 31 years lugging turnouts and gear weighing over 80 pounds, climbing stairs and ladders, lifting and carrying heavy loads put undue stress on his spine and knees, forcing him into an early and unwanted disability retirement. For John and countless other working Californians, these cumulative injuries force them off the job into early retirement, creating economic uncertainty, and a lesser quality of life than they’d planned.

For 60 years, California law has recognized the cumulative effects of the stress and strains of employment on its workers. For workers like Captain John, it means some peace of mind knowing that they have workers’ compensation coverage to support his continuing and most-likely lifetime medical care needs. Without medical care, like so many, would be in even more of a world of hurt.

Some of the power players in employment and in the workers’ compensation insurance industry would like to take away or severely limit wear-and-tear cumulative trauma injuries. Their motivation to eliminate these types of claims is plain and simple: to save money by not paying claims.

Regrettably, some of our elected leaders at the state level are making noises about giving in to these bottom-line-focused demands from the workers’ comp insurance industry and the employer community.

Imagine getting to the finish line years before your expected retirement date, they’re fighting your disability pension, there is no safety net of workers compensation and no recognition for your many years of service.

Captain John and others like him gave a lifetime to their department. He should now be compensated for everything that was taken from him. We can’t let employers, adjusting agencies, insurers or anyone else take away the safety net of cumulative trauma. Eliminating such claims would be wrong and immoral. Let’s work together to ensure that never happens.

Samuel R. Swift is a workers’ compensation attorney in San Jose, writing on behalf of the California Applicant Attorneys Association's Public Safety Committee.


YOUR VOICE IS NEEDED

CPF’s priority legislation, like most bills in the Legislature, faces a series of final votes at the Capitol. Although all enjoy strong support, getting them past the finish line will not be easy. Every voice matters.

Follow CPF … to keep track of our priority measures. You can find us at: www.cpf.org

@CAFirefighters on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Watch your email … for further updates and calls to action. Write and call your legislators … urge them to support pro-firefighter legislation from CPF