Snohomish Fire District 4 settled
How trauma from first responder calls is handled by administration can help or hurt frontline workers
SNOHOMISH — Ken Hopkins didn’t sue his employer to extract a big payoff or for revenge.
He filed suit because he was put through the wringer after getting post-traumatic stress disorder on the job, a psychological probability for firefighters which is gaining more recognition.
Snohomish Fire District 4 settled the lawsuit for $400,000 plus paid $76,500 to close out his paid leave and benefits.
The formal terms of the settlement disclaim any fault on any individual party.
By how Hopkins described his experience, though, his doctors’ recommendations for how he could come back to work from occupational disability were overridden by former Fire Chief Ron Simmons, who allegedly wrote substitute plans, and he was isolated within the firehouse for not going away quietly. To stack the odds against him, Hopkins said he was given an “insurmountable” series of mandated trainings, and was hindered from maintaining his necessary paramedic certifications. Last June, three months after filing his discrimination lawsuit, he was fired, snuffing out a 30-year career in firefighting.
Fire District 4’s board of commissioners approved settling the lawsuit at a special meeting just before Thanksgiving.
Fire Chief Don Waller said the fire district’s insurance company recommended settling. He declined to discuss case details. He made a point to say that the district’s insurer, not taxpayers, bore the settlement costs. “For us, we wanted resolution,” Waller said.
Retired chief Simmons deferred comment to Fire District 4 for this story.
Fire District 4’s attorneys denied all of the allegations in court paperwork.
By its very nature, firefighting puts its people under duress. Paramedics have duties to victims which they cannot ignore. They’re working to save people, and sometimes are consoling the victim’s family members.
A 2019 study published in “Occupational Medicine” says about one in eight male firefighters, and about one in five female firefighters, get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sometimes
the PTSD leads to suicidal ideations — a side-effect that affects about one in eight male firefighters and about one out of three female firefighters with PTSD, the study found.
PTSD builds in firefighters call after call until one incident pushes them over. For Hopkins, that trigger was in 2018 from attending to the teenage victim of a nasty vehicle accident, and having to explain the situation to the teen’s family when they showed up at the scene. His PTSD symptoms came days later. They came after working more than 25 years in firefighting. At the time, he was the district’s medical service officer, which under his command he began a Community Paramedic Program to help solve problems for people who make frequent medical service needs and to connect them with services.
Chief Waller said Fire District 4 is working to bring mental health into the open under his watch. He joined the district first as a deputy chief in September 2019 and in August 2020 he succeeded Simmons as fire chief.
Waller said one hindrance to care until 2021 was having a health insurance provider that was willing to cover preventative mental health services to test and identify concerns earlier. Fire District 4 changed insurance companies this year, and Waller said a key driver to that is because the new insurer will work with the district to create a program for mental health screenings. It will take 12 to 24 months to set this program up by working with
the insurance carrier and finding a contract provider, he said.
The immediate item will be breaking the barrier on talking about mental health, and that’s already begun,
“We have to show our employees it’s normal, and we all talk about it — but there’s many avenues — trying to break down those barriers,” Waller said, to make talking about PTSD normal “like a flu shot.”
“We try to weave it into conversations” around the firehouse, the chief said.
Hopkins’ attorneys alleged that prior chief Simmons took an “adversarial stance” to Hopkins’ needs and gave a demeaning attitude toward taking paid leave time off for PTSD.
Hopkins said soon after his PTSD diagnosis became a workers’ compensation issue, Simmons apparently wrote an all-staff email applauding other firefighters for coming right back to work after a child was maimed by a lawnmower. It is Hopkins’ opinion that there was no coincidence to why the chief sent that email.
It may have been from a culture of being stoic in the face of danger, and that firefighters should “shake it off” after working on terrible incidents — those bad calls.
But how things went after being diagnosed with PTSD felt like a betrayal, he said.
“You have to have a way back, man,” Hopkins said, “and I never felt welcomed back.”
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