State fire marshal pushes for more mental health benefits for first responders

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The smile on Steve LaDue’s face hid the demons that haunted him.

Like other first responders, LaDue, a firefighter and paramedic, and 29-year veteran of the department witnessed countless horrendous responding to fires, traffic accidents, shootings and other medical traumas.

“What my brother saw, he could never unsee,” said LaDue’s sister Megan Vila.

Like many of his colleagues, LaDue used alcohol to self-medicate. Like hundreds of others, he ended his life.

Between 2014 and 2016, approximately 270 firefighters died in the line of duty, while 379 of them committed suicide.

“If we could save one life, you know my brother’s life meant something,” Vila said.

Unless physical injury accompanies post-traumatic stress, workers compensation for won’t cover mental health treatment for first responders in the state of Florida.

State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis is telling local firefighters he is working to change that.

“It’s a change that shows that we care most about those that give of themselves selflessly every time we dial 911,” said Patronis.

Patronis is also working to establish a presumption that certain types of cancer contracted by firefighters as the result of their work, and should, therefore, be covered under workers compensation.

Two bills before the Florida legislature would provide first responders workers compensation benefits for mental or nervous injuries regardless of whether they’re physically injured. The proposal received unanimous support Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance.

Vila is one of the driving forces behind the proposed change.

“My brother was my hero the day he stepped forward and said ‘I have a problem’ and I applaud the very brave first responders who share their own stories of mental injuries,” she told a gathering of first responders at the Tampa Firefighting Museum.

Conspicuously absent from the rally was Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Thomas Forward, any uniformed Fire Rescue personnel and Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The mayor’s office said Mr. Buckhorn was not invited to the rally and did not know about it until this morning when he returned from out of the country.

Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny said Chief Forward would not attend because this is a political issue. It is a bill before the legislature and the department will not take a stand on it.

Fire Marshal Patronis said this is a health and safety issue and it will get done without those who were not at the table.

Megan Vila vows to work at changing state law to protect the men and women who are our state’s greatest asset.

If you have something that you think should be investigated call our Target 8 Helpline at 1 800 338-0808 or contact Steve Andrews at sandrews@wfla.com.

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