Legislation would help first responders with PTSD

Researchers at Florida State University say nearly half of the firefighters who participated in a recent survey admitted to considering suicide, and those thoughts often stem from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Legislation introduced Tuesday in the Florida Senate could deliver help for those first responders. 

“We have to be OK enough to help you. And I think if this bill were to pass it would help other people in the future who haven’t been helped up to this point,” said Josh Vandegrift, a City of Cocoa Firefighter and Paramedic who has been suffering with PTSD since last year.

On July 30, Vandegrift responded to vehicle versus pedestrian accident a block away from his firehouse.
A van had hit a pedestrian who was crossing U.S. Hwy. 1.  The pedestrian was Vandegrift’s 31-year-old brother, Nate Vandegrift. 

“I looked down and I was like, 'This can’t be happening. Why? Why is my brother here?'” he said.

Vandegrift recognized his brother, because of the tattoo on his neck. 

“I guess I flashed back to our life together.  I remember the day he was born, and I was there the day he died,” he said.

His training kicked in and he did what he could.  But Vandegrift said he knew his brother was critically injured.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know when somebody isn’t going to make it,” he said.

In the seven months since, Vandegrift has been struggling with PTSD.  

He took some time off, but he’s back on the job because he has no other option.  He has to support his wife and two daughters.  

Asked if he felt like he was ready to go back to work he said,  “Honestly, no.  But what choice do I have? I can’t not make money.”

A recent study shows 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have PTSD, and experts say those with PTSD are six times more likely to attempt suicide.  Yet most of those first responders still go to work every day. 

Vandegrift says his department has given him permission to step away from situations that could trigger his PTSD, but he hasn’t done it yet. 

Senate Bill 1088, which was introduced Tuesday by State Senator Victor M. Torres, D-Orlando, would give firefighters, police officers and paramedics who are diagnosed with PTSD more time to get well, by guaranteeing that they’d be paid while they take time to heal from job-related psychological issues.

“The least we can do for those who put their lives on the line every day to protect the citizens of this state is make sure they have the ability to get the treatment they need and provide for their families while they are recovering from any physical or mental illnesses,” Torres said in a press release.

According to Torres office, seven organizations representing police officers and firefighters have expressed support for the measure.  Torres’ office is currently looking for a member of the House of Representatives to push the bill in that chamber.  

“We have to be OK enough to help you,” Vandegrift said,  “And I think if this bill were to pass it would help other people in the future who haven’t been helped up to this point.  We all have ghosts on every corner.”

People who speak up against expanding PTSD coverage for first responders say there are a couple of things to remember.  First, it could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and they warn of a flood of claims that may or may not be legitimately.