Thomas C. Lowry, Esq. & Associates

Injured on Duty as a Volunteer Firefighter? (Act 46)

Know Your Rights Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Law
For those of us who have served in the public safety sector, either as a professional or volunteer, having a good understanding of your legal rights in the event that you are injured while serving your community, should be a primary concern to you and your family.  As a former Philadelphia Police Officer, I want you to know that if you are injured in the course of employment in Pennsylvania, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for both reasonable medical treatment  wage  and/or wage loss.  Because of their valuable contributions to the community safety, Pennsylvania Law regards a volunteer firefighter, ambulance corps, rescue squad member, and special fire police officer as an “employee” of the local municipality they serve; and hence are covered by their workers’ compensation insurance.  Injuries on duty include not only injuries that occur at the fire or emergency scene, but may also include injuries sustained going to the scene or returning to a home, place of business or other location where the call or alarm was received.  Injuries during drills, training, authorized activities and even repairs on equipment and fire apparatus may also be covered.

Remember first, to give notice of your injury to your supervisor as soon as possible.  Always ask to complete a written report regarding the incident/injury.  The worker s compensation insurer then has 21 days to file paperwork - either accepting the injury claim as compensable; accepting it as they investigate further; or denying it.  Ask for - and keep - the claim number assigned to your case, to track your benefits and assist in paying your bills.  Often, the municipality will notify you of your obligation to treat from among six or more posted “panel” healthcare providers, for the first 90 days.  The adjuster or Nurse Case Manager cannot direct you to treat with a specific doctor.  And, ou may choose from among the posted healthcare providers.  Further, should surgery be recommended, you are entitled to a second opinion.

 If you are disabled from work, you may be entitled to wage loss benefits, which are calculated from an injured worker’s pre-injury wages.  Since a volunteer firefighter may be unemployed, self-employed or otherwise employed at time of his/her injury on duty, an injured firefighter has the statutory option of an irrebuttable presumption that his/her wages are at least equal to the State’s “average weekly wage” - for purposes of calculating his/her tax-free wage loss benefits.  This is important since it may entitle a firefighter to partial disability benefits even after he/she returns to his/her pre-injury job.  

Recently, the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor enacted “Act 46” amending the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act to address the increased cancer risks faced by firefighters.  Generally, to be eligible, a firefighter must have served 4 or more years in continuous firefighting duties; had a previously clean bill of health as shown by a documented physical exam; and have evidence of direct exposure to a known carcinogen (listed as a ‘Group 1’ carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer) before his/her cancer diagnosis is legally presumed to be causally related to his/her firefighting duties.  Typically such carcinogen exposure may be established by a record of excessive exposure/inhalation of smoke on the job.  A cancer stricken firefighter must file a claim within 300 weeks after such a carcinogen exposure to utilize this causal connection legal presumption; although a claim may be filed up to within 600 weeks without the benefit of this presumption.

Also, Hepatitis C, heart attacks and coronary artery diseases are conditions/occupational diseases that can be proven to be compensable under workers’ compensation with the use of a rebuttable presumption.

Be aware that sometimes the disabled firefighter’s desire to recuperate and recover from a severe injury sustained in the line of duty may be underappreciated by the insurance adjuster, who is more interested in their job of achieving cost containment of the injury claim.  Protect yourself: If you are injured on the job – call a good workers compensation lawyer.

This information is being provided as a helpful guide, and is not to be construed as legal advice.  In the event you believe you may have a work injury claim, please seek the help of an experienced Pennsylvania workers’ compensation attorney.