In light of the Newtown school massacre, a state lawmaker said Friday that he will propose legislation to expand the circumstances in which emergency responders can receive workers' compensation.
"This is something that I've already discussed," said Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, the co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee. "I'm sure right after the holiday that this is going to be one of the bills that I am going to issue" for consideration in the session that starts Jan. 9.
The idea of expanding the workers' compensation law has been discussed before, with a big concern being the potential cost, Dargan said. "But if you limit the scope of it" to the sort of dire circumstances encountered by police at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dargan said it might be possible.
For several years, state law has provided workers' compensation benefits to pay for counseling for police officers who are mentally or emotionally impaired by "use of deadly force or subjection to deadly force in the line of duty." Earlier this year, legislators added a similar provision for firefighters who witness the death of another firefighter on duty.
But, as horrible as the Newtown massacre was, it did not involve either the use of deadly force by or against police, or the death of a firefighter, said Paul J. Rapanault, director of legislative and political affairs for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut.
He said there is room for Dargan and fellow legislators to expand eligibility for workers' compensation for first-responders suffering emotionally or mentally after witnessing horrors such as those in Newtown. The extent and duration of such benefits would need to be established by lawmakers, he added.
"We need to protect our first-responders," Dargan said. "That is going to be one of the discussions."
Newtown Police Commissioner Joel T. Faxon, a lawyer, is also pushing to expand the law.
Faxon handled many workers' compensation claims after the deadly 2010 Kleen Energy plant explosion in Middletown.
Faxon said that he plans to raise the issue at the January police commission meeting and that he hopes the commission will pass a resolution asking the legislature to change the law. He said the measure also should be extended to teachers and school personnel.
As many as half a dozen Newtown police officers were the first-responders to the elementary school. When they arrived, the loud blasts of Adam Lanza's Bushmaster rifle could still be heard as they ran into the building.
They found 20 children and six women shot to death.
State Police Col. Daniel Stebbins said he has concerns about all the officers who went into the school, including several state troopers.
"We have a lot of guys who served in Iraq or Afghanistan but this is much different because it involves children and you see what happened to them and you see the faces of their families,'' Stebbins said. "Anybody who went into that building has to be affected. It is worse than anything we have ever experienced."
Stebbins said that counselors have been available since the shooting. Representatives from the FBI, Yale University, counselors who worked in Aurora, Colo., following the movie theater shootings and even Billy Graham's Evangelistic Association have offered assistance, he said.
While it is unclear if any of the Newtown police officers would apply for workers' compensation, Faxon said it was important that they at least have the option.
The Stamford police officer who shot a raging chimpanzee two years ago was denied workers' compensation benefits. Many businesses and municipalities are against changing the law because it would mean an extra financial burden for them.
An employee who gets workers' compensation receives a percentage of their salary as well as medical benefits. It is separate from disability retirement benefits that are the subject of bargaining between police unions and their individual towns.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun