NC firefighters lobby for bills on PTSD coverage, roadside safety, PFAS
Firefighters shared emotional testimony to the state legislature about their struggles with traumatic calls
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Dozens of uniformed firefighters spent Wednesday at the North Carolina General Assembly lobbying for bills to help them and other first responders.
By Thursday, three of those bills were already on track to be voted on in the House of Representatives, where they will likely pass and then be sent to the Senate.
All three deal with safety issues. House Bill 355 would ban the use of firefighting foam with potentially toxic PFAS chemicals during training. House Bill 448 would allow fire trucks to use flashing blue lights when stopped on the side of the road for an emergency response. House Bill 492 would allow firefighters, police, EMTs and 911 dispatchers to receive worker's compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, not just physical injuries from their job.
Rep. Mike Clampitt, a Republican from Swain County in Western North Carolina, said he recently spoke to a law enforcement officer who found himself sitting in his patrol car holding his service weapon to his head, contemplating suicide. He didn't pull the trigger, but too many others have, Clampitt said.
Clampitt, who worked for more than 30 years as a firefighter in Charlotte, then became choked up talking about an image that still haunts him, of a child whose body he recovered from a house fire. The body was of a 5-month-old infant who was so badly burned that they had no more hands or feet, he said, and was too tiny to fit in a body bag.
"I thought I'd never see, in my career, using a pillowcase as a body bag," Clampitt said. "But that's exactly what we did."
Clampitt said he doesn't think about that baby every day, but he does whenever he sees a fellow firefighter, and he imagines many of those in uniform in the committee room had similar burdens they're carrying.
"It's not to make you feel bad, not to make you feel sorry for me," Clampitt said. "... But may no one, no one, ever have to suffer and deal with that. Because we have firefighters committing suicide every day."
Scott Mullins, an Asheville Fire Department captain, said five North Carolina firefighters killed themselves last year. And he said there's a tree that, every time he walks past it, "I think about a child I had to cut down. The things we see are terrible."
Thank you to @PFFPNC President @mullins_pffpnc for speaking for firefighters across the state on HB492, an important PTSD bill we have been working on since 2019.— PFFPNC (@PFFPNC) May 5, 2021
We appreciate the Judiciary 1 Committee’s unanimous vote today. #NCGA #NCPOL https://t.co/jS6eLsFGkp pic.twitter.com/BrfjUZHalS
John Midgette, executive director of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association which represents rank-and-file police officers, said they also support the workers' compensation bill and believe it's long overdue.
"It's taken law enforcement a long time to understand we need this," he said.
The bill passed through committees easily on Wednesday and was likely headed to an easy victory on the floor of the House, too. But it's unclear if it will face the same warm reception when it gets to the Senate.
WRAL-TV reported last week that this same bill has failed in the Senate before, due to concerns that it might lead to other types of workers being able to claim worker's comp for mental-health problems related to their job.
"This measure and others like it have been blocked before in the Senate over concerns that an expansion would increase costs and lead to a slippery slope of others seeking similar changes," WRAL reported.
Senate leader Phil Berger was asked about the bill in late April and told reporters he'd be open to considering it. But he noted that city and county officials have opposed it in the past due to "questions about what it does to costs, in terms of the worker's compensation coverage and those sorts of things."
There's opposition to at least one of the other firefighter bills, too — the one to let them use flashing blue lights when parked during an emergency response situation.
Police oppose that bill, saying only they should be able to use blue lights. But firefighters and lawmakers have said they think it will help cut down on drunk or distracted drivers crashing into stopped trucks.
Tim Bradley has worked for the Mebane Fire Department in Alamance County for more than 45 years. He said Wednesday the only time he still gets scared on the job is when he's on the side of the highway, since there have been so many instances of drivers slamming into fire trucks and the nearby firefighters. He thinks people are more cautious around flashing blue lights because of their association with police, though, and multiple lawmakers echoed that sentiment.
"It's not a turf war to us," said Bradley, who is also executive director of the state Firefighters' Association. "It's a public safety issue."
Law enforcement groups, however, say blue lights should stay firmly on their turf.
"I understand everybody wants to have blue lights," said Eddie Caldwell of the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association. "But it's confusing to the general public."
Fred Baggett of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police said people crash into parked police cars with the lights on, too.
"We know it's a problem," he said. "We're not sure this is the solution."
In several instances Wednesday, lawmakers jokingly acknowledged the tough political calculations of having to vote against either firefighters or police.
"This feels like my kids are fighting between each other, but I love them both," said Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Henderson County Republican.
In the end the bill passed through committees and onto the House floor for a vote that was expected late Thursday.
Representatives for law enforcement groups said they don't want their officers to show up at a crime scene and see flashing blue lights and assume there are already other cops there, not realizing it's a fire truck flashing the lights.
But firefighters said there are multiple crashes a year in which distracted or drunken drivers plow into stopped trucks on the highway, and blue lights could help. Several lawmakers agreed, saying that when they're driving, flashing blue lights are better at getting their attention than other colors.
More firefighter-related bills
A House committee passed House Bill 355, which among other provisions would ban the use in training of firefighting foam that contains a family of chemicals called PFAS. They have become controversial in recent years after allegations that they cause health problems and after industrial dumping of one of them, GenX, into the Cape Fear River. The federal U.S. Fire Administration has formally warned that PFAS firefighting foams are dangerous.
Finally, a fourth firefighter bill also passed a committee Wednesday and was originally scheduled for a vote Thursday with the rest, but was pulled from the calendar at the last minute. House Bill 807 would clarify that firefighters, police and soldiers should not be stopped from voting if they're in uniform.
"I find it hard to believe we even have to have a discussion about this," said Keith Wilder, a Raleigh Fire Department battalion chief.
There were reports in 2020 of a police officer being told he couldn't vote while in uniform, lawmakers said Wednesday, due to precinct officials being confused about a different rule that police can't patrol at polling places.
(c)2021 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)