Injury Among Volunteer Fire Department Members

Firefighters are crucial to public safety. Often they encounter disasters and public health emergencies. The nature of their work is vital to a functioning society. There are about double as many volunteer firefighters as there are paid/career firefighters.[1] Respiratory diseases are a somber reality for many. Inhalation of smoke, smog, and other foreign substances may exacerbate existing conditions or create them. In addition, “2 out of 3 calls firefighters respond to are medical emergencies – not fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.”[2] According to statute N.J.S.A. 34:15-43.2, volunteer fire department members will have a presumption of occupational disease if such disease is respiratory and “manifests itself while such member is an active member of such department.”[3] Encountering medical situations in which these first responders are exposed to the coronavirus is likely for many of these firefighters.

In San Jose, California, 10 firefighters in one fire department have tested positive for the virus.[4] Firefighting unions need to take a hard look at whether their members have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to handle medical emergencies. They must educate their members on proper use of PPE. It is critical to containing the coronavirus. The CDC advises that men’s beards could essentially render face masks useless if the hair extends past the sealing surface, preventing “the necessary impenetrable seal from being formed.”[5]

The presumption of occupational disease with regard to volunteer fire department members is so important. It puts the burden of proof on proving that the disease was contracted outside of work. This could be difficult because the nature of their work puts them in harm’s way more often than not, whether it be to harmful bacteria, viruses, or natural elements. When most people would flee, first responders such as firefighters confront the danger. It is critical that they obtain compensation, such as paid medical treatment, through a Workers’ Compensation Court if the coronavirus is contracted during the course of their employment.

[1] “Firefighter.” Truity, Truity, 21 June 2018, www.truity.com/career-profile/firefighter.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “2009 New Jersey Code: TITLE 34 – LABOR AND WORKMEN’S COMPENSATION: 34:15: 34:15-7.1 – Horseplay or Skylarking on Part of Fellow Employees.” Justia Law, Justia, law.justia.com/codes/new-jersey/2009/title-34/34-15/34-15-7-1/.

[4] Angst, Maggie, and Jason Green. “San Jose: More Firefighters, a Community Center Volunteer Test Positive for Coronavirus.” The Mercury News, MediaNews Group, Inc., 16 Mar. 2020, www.mercurynews.com/2020/03/16/more-san-jose-firefighters-a-communtiy-center-volunteer-test-positive-for-coronavirus/.

[5] Secon, Holly, and Hilary Brueck. “Men’s Beards Could Render Face Masks Useless – One Surprisingly Comprehensive Graphic from the CDC Reveals Why ‘Walrus’ Is Fine but ‘Mutton Chops’ Won’t Do.” Business Insider, Insider Inc., 25 Feb. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/cdc-recommends-different-facial-hairstyles-work-better-with-face-masks-2020-2.

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