Elizabeth Regan
Members of the Bristol Fire Department lobby at the state capitol (Elizabeth Regan)

Firefighters like Sean Lennon, a 20-year member of the Bristol Fire Department, have been a presence at the state Capitol for at least a month as they’ve lobbied for a bill that would help promote the mental and physical health of first responders.

Now, word from House leadership makes it seem like the hundreds of first responders lining the halls in dark, starched uniforms are on a death watch rather than a mission.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said Saturday that he doesn’t “see a path forward for the bill.” He said there doesn’t seem to be the votes to pass it in its current iteration.

On Tuesday, roughly 36 hours before the end of session, Lennon said he had not heard the bill is dead. “We want the Speaker to call the bill and let it stand on its merits on the house floor,” he said.

Rick Hart, political director for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, would not back down despite the Speaker’s ominous warning.

“We’re here. We’re fighting until 12 o’clock tomorrow night,” he said.

The bill, which the Senate passed on a 25-11 vote, combines two separate measures. The first would expand workers’ compensation coverage to police officers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing death in the line of duty or respond within six hours to a death. It does not apply to motor vehicle fatalities. The second bill would give firefighters who don’t smoke the option to file a workers’ compensation claim for certain types of cancers related to the dangers they experience on the job.

Lennon, who serves as the president of the local union, said there have been more than a dozen Bristol firefighters over the past 10 years who have died from, or been diagnosed with, the specific kinds of cancer spelled out in the bill. He said those with such cancers should not have to worry about losing their homes due to lost wages; instead, the priority should be on getting better and getting back to work.

The bill gives a professional firefighter who has been on the job for five years the ability to file a workers’ compensation claim for a number of cancers that some studies have shown are linked to the job. Volunteer firefighters would have to be on the job for 15 years in order to file a claim. Under the bill, the municipality would have the burden of proving that a firefighter’s cancer is not related to their job.

Sharkey said there was talk about turning the bill into a study, but it’s his understanding that it’s an “all or nothing proposition” for the proponents of the bill. “They’re not interested in the task force. They want the bill and they won’t take anything less,” Sharkey said. “That’s my understanding.”

The workers compensation measures came under fire from many municipal officials who said they should have been involved in the bill’s evolution from the beginning.

A statement from the Connecticut Council of Municipalities described the bill as the “largest unfunded state mandate on towns and cities in recent history.”

Connecticut State Police Union President Andrew Matthews said the coalition of firefighters and police officers decided they couldn’t wait another year for a task force to research the issue and release its findings. “Our response respectively was that we don’t have a year to wait,” he said. “These are people’s lives. People’s lives are in really bad places. We need protection now.”

Both Matthews and Hart referred to the case of Newtown police officer Thomas Bean. According to the Associated Press, a state board ruled last month that the town must pay more than $380,000 in long-term disability to a police officer who developed anxiety and depression after responding to the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The police chief recommended firing Bean when he could not return to work after two years, but did not follow through. Bean hasn’t worked since the tragedy that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators.

Matthews said the expense to the municipality could have been less if Bean had been able to benefit from mental health provisions through the workers compensation program.

“It’s more cost effective for an employer to help their employee recover and continue to be a productive member of the agency than it is to just disregard them as if [the employer] could care less,” Matthews said.

Matthews posited that the state arbitration board’s decision affirming contractual long-term disability coverage for PTSD in Newtown may ultimately encourage some officers with the condition to seek help. But he said the municipality’s failure to accept liability up until now may have endangered the officers and the public.

“That whole time, you had officers walking around that were suffering,” Matthews said. “And they’re carrying around a gun and a badge and maybe they shouldn’t.”

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.