Another Mass Shooting Sparks New Rounds of Political Debate
On February 14th, 2018 at 2:19 p.m., a 19-year-old, lone gunman stepped out of an Uber and entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – a quiet, picturesque city nestled in the shadows of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, former student Nikolas Cruz activated a fire alarm (the second that day at the school due to an earlier fire drill), and amidst the resulting confusion, he went on a six-minute shooting spree killing 17 and wounding 16.
After he was finished, Cruz dropped his gun and fled the scene by blending in with evacuating students. At approximately 3:40 p.m., he was taken into custody without incident by a Coral Springs police officer. The Parkland massacre became the deadliest school shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults in 2012.
Although recent mass shootings in Las Vegas in 2017 (58 killed, 500 injured) and Orlando in 2016 (49 killed, 50 injured) were deadlier, the cumulative effects of these incidents have resulted in significant social and political fallout, which can also be contributed to the fact that the victims of Parkland are old enough to speak out against the crime committed.
PTSD & First Responders Come into Focus
While the gun control debate, school safety and civil mental health matters have risen to the forefront – everything from tightening gun restrictions to amending the Baker Act to allow police to detain and hospitalize people who make disturbing threats on social media – there has also been an increased focus on issues related to the physical and emotional well-being of first responders, specifically regulations related to worker’s comp coverage for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a mental health condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event such as combat, a car accident, natural disaster or an assault. It is characterized by reliving traumatic events through flashbacks and nightmares. Affected individuals may also startle easily, become hyper-sensitive to otherwise normal events and experience depression as a result. PTSD is rarely diagnosed quickly and in fact, is only classified as a “disorder” if symptoms do not subside within a month or two, or begin to interfere with an affected individual’s work and home life. If left untreated, PTSD can lead to a variety of other serious negative outcomes including fracture families, loss of career and even suicide.
Florida, Other States Moving to Address Worker’s Comp Shortfalls
Due to the experiences of first responders following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and now the Parkland tragedy, Florida is at ground zero in the PTSD conversation. The state is in the process of amending its worker’s comp laws to address oversights in PTSD insurance coverage, and many other states are watching and having similar discussions.
Like about a third of all states, current Florida law does not deal with PTSD in a comprehensive manner. First responders can get medical coverage for PTSD if they get it on the job, but cannot collect lost wages resulting from it. Should they require additional time off to enter treatment, which can range from six months to a year in many cases, then they must also have a related physical injury to have their salaries covered. A new bill which has already passed both the Florida House of Representatives and Senate aims to correct these shortfalls. The House sponsor was Democratic Rep, Matt Willhite, a full-time captain with the Palm Beach County Fire and Rescue.
Traumatic Scenes Challenging Even the Most Hardened
In the minutes that followed the Parkland shooting, dozens of firefighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel raced to the active shooter scene to begin administering assistance to students, staff and others impacted by the unfolding event. According to the IAFF.org, this included members of Metro Broward Local 3080, Broward County Local 4321, Pompano Local 1521 and Fort Lauderdale Local 765. All participated in rescuing, triaging, treating and transporting victims who ranged in ages between 14 to 49.
In an interview for ProPublica.org, Lt. Rob Ramirez, a firefighter for the City of Margate, who worked the casualty collection point during the Parkland event, said that first responders were overwhelmed with what he called “battlefield” injuries inflicted by the shooter. “We transported a total of 14 victims off scene, all of them with major traumatic injuries. As you can imagine, these small-frame, small-bodied high school children taking these large caliber weapons, multiple rounds, to the torso, legs, arms, extremities …. it was all very chaotic.” Ramirez reported that he was “doing well”, but said he thinks about it frequently and is concerned PTSD developing in others who worked the Parkland shooting.
The IAFF Steps in to Provide Their Support
The IAFF, sharing these same concerns, immediately began dispatching peer support teams to provide counseling and other assistance to all of its members who responded on scene at Parkland. Support teams from Orlando, Palm Beach County, Miami-Dade, Ft. Lauderdale, Lauderhill, Margate, Coral Springs, the Broward Sherriff’s office and the FDNY met with members of 24 stations in the area and conducted group and one-on-one counseling.
Metro Broward Local 3080 President, Brian Powell, commenting on the Parkland event and aftermath said, “Our members were just amazing throughout this emergency. This was a truly tough scene to work through, but they were awesome and saved lives. Unfortunately, what these members saw at the scene cannot be unseen.”
Harold Shaitberger, General President of the IAFF said, “We are here to make sure that our members and the staff who worked at this tragic scene – as well as their families – are aware of the behavioral health counseling resources available to them. We want them to know that the IAFF will be with them to address any behavioral issues now and in the long term.”
More Help on the Way for First Responders
To date, at least three first responders to the Pulse nightclub shooting have come forward to publicly disclose their PTSD diagnoses. It was this event which led advocates to begin pushing for expanded worker’s comp coverage for PTSD in Florida.
Now, on the heels of Parkland, it appears that more and new comprehensive legislation is finally moving forward, and that first responders will soon be getting the type of support needed to deal with their high-stress jobs, and the unimaginable scenes they may come face-to-face with on any given day.