Sister's plea for new law after firefighter's suicide

She is trying to help others get help with the issues that led her brother to take his own life.

TAMPA, Fla.  --  They're the people we turn to in our worst moments. When everyone else runs away, first responders run to the rescue, but a law in Florida is neglecting to give our heroes the support they might need.

Under current state law, workers' compensation does not cover mental stress injuries of first responders. In some circumstances, PTSD is covered, but only if accompanied by a physical injury.

Megan Vila, a Tampa woman, is making it her mission to change this law because two months ago, her brother Stephen LaDue, who was a firefighter saving lives for nearly 30 years, took his own life.

Vila described her brother as a light in the firehouse.

"Being a firefighter, especially with the city of Tampa, it was a part of who he was. Stevie was the guy that everyone looked forward to working with."

After nearly 30 years as a firefighter, Vila said LaDue started to suffer from traumatic flashbacks.

 "One in particular that really was haunting him was a 6-month-old baby that was beaten by his father, and my brother was working that baby to the hospital and it died in his arms," she explained.

Vila said her brother fell into a dark place and his captain encouraged him to seek professional help.

"Workers' comp doesn't cover PTSD, so he was not allowed to miss work and get paid for it. Ultimately, he had to pay back all the time that he missed, and that put my brother into a deeper depression."

According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Florida is one of more than a dozen states that doesn't cover mental distress for first responders under workers' compensation benefits.

Vila is fighting for change from Tampa to Tallahassee.

"They pass down so many standards for firefighters, the equipment that they're using, the air packs on their backs, the helmets on their head," she said. "If we don't protect what's under their head, mentally, how can they protect us?"

This past July the Yellow Ribbon Report was published, detailing the state of mental wellness in fire departments across the country. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, firefighters are three times more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

Robin Grant-Hall, Ph.D. is a psychologist who contributed to the Yellow Ribbon report.

"To have such an admirable career and then be so overwhelmed by all those experiences to the point where you take your own life, at the young age of your 50s, it's a trauma to me, that is tragic and traumatic," said Grant-Hall.

The Yellow Ribbon Report calls for a cultural shift in firehouses across the country.

"In the fire service, we were always taught, 'If this wasn't what you expected, or if this is something you can't handle, this isn't the job for you,'" said Chief Chuck Flynn with the Suffield Fire Department in Connecticut. Flynn is one of the authors of the Yellow Ribbon Report.

Meanwhile, two bills have been filed in the Florida Legislature. If passed, first responders would be entitled to workers' comp benefits for mental stress injuries.

Review the bills here:

HB 227: Workers' Compensation Benefits for First Responders

SB 376: Workers' Compensation Benefits for First Responders

"I'm fighting for all the firefighters across the state of Florida, that they just get the treatment that they deserve," explained Vila.

Vila's family started a petition on www.change.org in support of the bills. It has more than 11,000 supporters.

This same issue came up in 2016 for police officers who responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting where 49 people died and dozens more were wounded.

The proposed legislation would benefit all first responders and specifically mentions situations when a first responder has witnessed a murder, suicide, fatal injury, or child death, or arrived on a scene where mass casualties were suffered.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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