Washington State firefighters are members of our community who put their lives, health and safety on the line every day they go to work. If you’re a firefighter in Washington State, it’s important to know your rights to compensation for an injury or disability under state law.
As a firefighter, you respond not only to fires. You’re also called in for land and water rescues, vehicle accidents, emergency medical services, aircraft rescue, and a variety of other industrial and environmental incidents, often involving hazardous materials responses. With continued exposure to a variety of high-risk environments, firefighters can easily sustain a serious workplace injury or develop an occupational disease.
Workers’ Compensation benefits for firefighters vary widely from state to state. Only a handful of states have laws in place that understand the level of risk and service to the public that firefighters take on every day they’re on the job, and these laws are designed to protect both full-time and volunteer firefighters and ensure they are treated fairly, given the grave risks they face on a daily basis.
Luckily, Washington State is recognized as one of the top states in the country with the most proactive laws to protect benefits that injured firefighters and their families deserve. Washington State firefighters receive special protections that don’t extend to other industries and can make the success of a Workers’ Compensation claim far more likely. For example, firefighters who have had their claim denied can then take that claim directly to the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (BIIA). This means our team of experienced trial attorneys at Emery Reddy can start fighting for your case right away. Washington State is also one of the only states that will reimburse attorney fees if a firefighter wins their appeal.
Firefighters who have been exposed to an undue hazard at the emergency response site can also file a third-party claim, alleging negligence that increased the risk during the response. Common third-party claims for firefighters are improper asbestos mediation, harmful or illegal substances that increased the toxicity of smoke, and faulty design or planning. Third party claims are instrumental in moving past the Workers’ Comp and L&I schedules, and getting to an insurance policy or tortfeasor – this is sometimes the best way to increase the total award a firefighter may receive following a serious injury.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Washington is one of the few states to recognize the inherent risk in the profession as it relates to occupational diseases:
“The legislature finds that the employment of firefighters exposes them to smoke, fumes, and toxic or chemical substances. The legislature recognizes that firefighters as a class have a higher rate of respiratory disease than the general public. The legislature therefore finds that respiratory disease should be presumed to be occupationally related for industrial insurance purposes for firefighters.”
And our government has codified the presumption that certain occupational diseases are connected to a firefighter’s job. Put another way, firefighters automatically receive the assumption under RCW 51.32.185 that the following conditions are connected to the job:
“(i) respiratory disease; (ii) any heart problems, experienced within seventy-two hours of exposure to smoke, fumes, or toxic substances, or experienced within twenty-four hours of strenuous physical exertion due to firefighting activities; (iii) cancer; and (iv) infectious diseases are occupational diseases under RCW 51.08.140.”
If you’ve experienced one or more of the below hazards or injuries on the job, Washington state law entitles you to reimbursement of medical expenses, wage loss compensation, and vocational rehabilitation services if necessary, alongside a variety of other benefits:
Muscle Strain: The most common injuries that firefighters suffer are muscle strains and pain from overexertion. This is typically due to the high physical demands placed on firefighters, and a lack of time to stretch and warm up before a firefighter needs to act.
Falls: Firefighters are at a high risk for serious falls. The heavy gear and uniforms worn on duty can offset balance and decrease your control at impact. Falls can cause broken bones and serious injuries to the head, back, or spine. Even if you can walk away after your fall, it is always important to see a doctor right away, and to tell your doctor that you sustained the injury while at work.
Medical Hazards: Firefighters are often called to the scene of an accident or an event that involves a medical emergency. This results in a higher risk of exposure to bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis, meningitis, and HIV. While firefighters and other medical professionals take precautions to prevent transmission, if you are exposed to a bloodborne illness, you deserve compensation for associated medical expenses and changes in lifestyle.
Respiratory Disease: When certain items burn, they can make smoke more toxic to inhale, even with the use of a respirator. Firefighters risk exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals like asbestos. This exposure can cause chronic respiratory conditions including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sleep apnea, and lung cancer.
Heart Strain: Washington State law ensures that if a firefighter experiences any heart problems within 72 hours of exposure to smoke, fumes, or toxic substances on the job, or within 24 hours of strenuous physical exertion related to your job as a firefighter, you are entitled to have all associated medical costs reimbursed.
Cancer: Firefighters are at a consistently higher risk than the general public of a cancer diagnosis. Some emergencies may also expose first responders to radiation. However, proving that a cancer diagnosis is related to your occupation as a firefighter can require complex documentation spanning years of service.
Vehicle Collisions: In the hurry to get to the scene of an emergency, firefighters and other emergency responders are at a higher risk of vehicle collisions. The worst collisions can cause broken bones and internal injuries, but a crash can also exacerbate other injuries sustained on the job.
Hearing Loss: Continuous noise at firegrounds and emergency scenes, combined with a greater possibility of experiencing sudden explosions or falling objects, can both contribute to occupational hearing loss for firefighters.
Contact with or Being Struck by an Object: Firefighters are also at risk of being struck by objects while at a fireground. This can include falling objects, as well as stationary machines and other devices that might shift or present a hazard. Pulled muscles, soreness and bruises, lacerations, and broken bones can all result from contact with an object.
In the midst of dealing with injury or a serious disease related to your occupation, it can feel overwhelming to start the process of finding legal representation you can trust. But if you’ve been denied compensation that you rightfully deserve, the sooner you find an attorney who is willing to fight for your case, the faster you and your family can receive reimbursement for medical expenses and loss of income. Our firm has set the standard in winning landmark cases that have increased state protections for workers’ rights and changed Washington legislation to better serve those who serve our community. A win for your case could lead to changes that make your workplace safer and become a win for another firefighter down the road.
There are a variety of resources that firefighters can take advantage of, some far preceding any official claim.
The Personal Injury-Illness-Exposure Reporting System, or PIIERS
This resource, sponsored by the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, is a confidential system that any firefighter can use to keep a personal record of injury, illness, and exposure to hazardous chemicals as a result of job-related activities. PIIERS is free for firefighters in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana. Otherwise, the cost is $5 per year.
Healthy In, Healthy Out
This best practices manual, published by the Washington State Council of Firefighters, seeks to reduce firefighter risk of exposure to carcinogens and other hazards.
Code 4 Northwest
This is a free, confidential crisis and referral hotline run by volunteers for Washington State active and retired first responders and their families. Code 4 Northwest was created to ensure Washington State’s first responders have access to the best help possible when in crisis. They provide support through prevention, education, awareness and crisis response. Calls are answered by a live person who understands the issues you are confronting and all call-takers are current or former first responders or work in the public safety/EMS field in Washington State. The crisis line is available 24/7/365 at 425.243.5092.
Safe Call Now
Safe Call Now is a confidential comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for public safety employees, emergency services personnel and their family members nationwide. Safe Call Now is a resource for public safety employees to speak confidentially with officers, former law enforcement officers, public safety professionals and/or mental healthcare providers who are familiar with your line of work. Call: 206-459-3020.
Firefighter Cancer Support Network
Cancer is the most dangerous threat to firefighter health and safety today. The mission of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network is to help fire/EMS members and their families cope with cancer and to provide occupational-cancer awareness and prevention training nationwide.