BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — A longtime Brevard County firefighter says years of trauma he witnessed on the job led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, but his department and a compensation claims judge denied his request for coverage of treatment.
9 Investigates reporter Karla Ray has been digging into cases of firefighters being denied benefits for cancer treatment and expanded her investigation into this mental health crisis. She found it all comes back to a law put into place after the Pulse nightclub shooting to help first responders seek lost wages in the event of mental illness.
The compensation judge overseeing Roger Williams’ claim for medical benefits denied his request, writing that his diagnosis of PTSD was not tied to a qualifying work event that would have allowed him to receive lost wages. Williams’ attorneys argue that you don’t have to seek both to receive treatment benefits. They’re hoping an appeals court will agree.
For 23 years, Williams lived out his childhood dream of being a firefighter.
“Loved that job -- became a paramedic, ran all the calls, got all the experience I wanted,” Williams said. “Was promoted to lieutenant, and I tried to leave the firehouse making sure my people were OK.”
The largest chunk of Williams’ time was spent at Station 62 in Satellite Beach, a short distance from a call on the Pineda Causeway that would haunt his dreams.
A tire blew, sending a dump truck out of control and into flames.
“The driver was still inside, still alive, still screaming when I got there,” Williams recalled. “I tried to get there to see if I could make the rescue. But as I got there, the tanks blew, and the screaming stopped.”
That call triggered nightmares, not just about what he saw on the roadway: Williams started remembering all the horrific calls he ran throughout his career. That’s exactly how experts describe compound PTSD impacting first responders.
“Your bucket is full. You can’t hold it anymore,” Williams said.
Court records show Williams wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until 1-1/2 years later, in the spring of 2021, after images of other fire scenes on display at a workplace triggered the memory of that horrific October 2019 call.
The judge that reviewed the county’s denial of Williams’ request for treatment for work-related PTSD determined that “although these images may have reminded Mr. Williams of the October 2019 truck fire or other traumatic events that occurred at work, looking at pictures of fire scenes does not meet the statutory requirement of directly witnessing the event.”
“We feel like that is just really an erroneous reading of the statute, and horrible public policy,” attorney Geoff Bichler said. “Because, of course, we want to have our first responders getting the adequate medical care at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Brevard County Fire officials declined to comment on the case because it is still pending in the court system.
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