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Mat Erpelding

Erpelding

The City of Boise made headlines across the state recently for an unthinkable reason. A 3-year-old girl died from knife wounds about a week after the most vicious attack in the city’s history — an attack which happened at the girl’s birthday party. Five other children and three adults fell victim to the same assailant. The horror of June 30, 2018, will live long in the memories of the victims, their families and the community they live in.

Lost in the headlines of this tragic event are Idaho’s first responders. Police arrived on the scene within four minutes of receiving the first call. They apprehended the suspect almost immediately. Fire and medical staff rushed to the scene and began administering life-saving care. The response included all levels of law enforcement, fire and emergency services, from local, county and state agencies. They too will no doubt be haunted by the scene forever.

Nine victims. Six children. One death. A 3-year-old girl celebrating her birthday.

How could they possibly forget…

Idaho’s first responders witness things we see only in movies. Whether it’s a Pocatello police officer faced with an armed suspect or a Twin Falls Sheriff’s deputy pulling a drowning victim from the Snake River. Our emergency medical technicians provide life-saving services to people who are attacked by fists, knives or guns. As you are reading this, firefighters are risking their lives fighting blazes around the state in our communities, forests and open areas. Watching scenes like this play out in the movies may be exciting to the viewer for a couple of hours. In real life, these scenes can cycle through the minds of first responders in an endless loop.

So, why is the state of Idaho leaving these men and women in a lurch?

The issue is Idaho’s Workers Compensation laws. Idaho is among a handful of states that deny coverage for mental/psychological injuries unless they are caused or accompanied by physical injury. That means that workers who suffer from purely “mental” or psychological workplace injuries will not get relief from our Workers Compensation fund. Inexplicably, those laws even apply to our first responders who have witnessed or been involved in unspeakable events like the ones described above.

Never mind the post-traumatic stress, depression, hypertension or the myriad other mental health problems associated with such dangerous jobs. In the state of Idaho, the Sheriff’s deputy who has to pull a body out of the Snake River has to injure their back in the process if they want any chance of being covered by Workers Compensation. Without the physical injury, they’re out of luck, no matter how tragic the scene.

Given the horrors they witness throughout the course of their careers, it’s no wonder that first responders have PTSD and depression at a level five times that of civilians. It’s also no surprise that suicide rates among police officers and firefighters are higher than for the general public. In fact, in 2017, more police officers and firefighters killed themselves than were killed in the line of duty nationwide.

Every public servant will tell you how much they value Idaho’s first responders — it’s an automatic response. Unfortunately, those words ring hollow when the state won’t cover the inevitable mental health issues that afflict so many of the men and women who keep us safe every day. The next time you hear a politician tell you how much they respect and admire Idaho’s first responders, ask them why the state’s Workers Compensation fund won’t cover their PTSD, their depression, and other mental health issues. The time for rhetoric is over. It’s time the state shows, through its actions, they truly value the sacrifices these men and women make. Idaho’s first responders should not have to be physically injured in order to receive Workers Compensation benefits. The biggest injury often lies within. Hidden. Until it’s too late.

Idaho should not be grouped with the few states who do not value their first responders.

Nine victims. Six children. One death. A 3-year-old girl celebrating her birthday. Unspeakable horror that won’t soon be forgotten.

Tell your state legislators to take action and provide Idaho’s first responders with the help, and respect, they have earned.

Rep. Mat Erpelding is the Democratic Leader in the Idaho State House of Representatives.

He represents District 19 in Boise.

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