Firefighter PTSD and Workers' Compensation Act

  • 5/4/2023 7:00 am

On April 21, 2023, the General Assembly enacted the James “Dustin” Samples Act which creates a presumption that a PTSD diagnosis for a firefighter is an injury occurring in the course and scope of the firefighter’s performance and compensable under workers’ compensation law. The diagnosis must be made by a mental health professional and occur as a result of a firefighter responding to one or more incidents with at least one (1) of the factors:

  • Directly witnessing the death of a minor, or treating the injury of a minor, who subsequently died before or upon arrival at a hospital emergency department;
  • Directly witnessing an individual whose death involved a serious bodily injury of a nature that shocks the conscience;
  • Responding to an event where there was a victim with a serious bodily injury that shocks the conscience; or
  • Responding to an event where a responder, co-worker of a responder, or family member of a responder sustained a serious bodily injury or died. 

An employing entity may rebut the presumption if it is shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the PTSD was caused by non-service-connected risk factors or non-service-connected exposure. 

The Act limits application of the presumption to a firefighter who is diagnosed with PTSD within one year of the firefighter’s final date of employment with the employing fire department. 

The Act applies to regular, full-time, paid employees of a fire department whose duties require the employee to actively engage in fire suppression, rescue services, or other emergency response tasks and includes employees whose previous duties required the employee to respond to and be actively engaged in fire suppression, rescue services, or other emergency response tasks. 

Eligible fire departments are those departments of a municipality, county, or political subdivision, or an organization, agency, or entity that offers its services, for or without pay, for the purpose of suppressing fires, performing rescue services, or for other emergency response purposes but the following are NOT covered by this Act: law enforcement agencies, emergency medical agencies licensed by the Tennessee emergency medical services board, and rescue squads that do not provide fire protection. 

The Act requires the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to establish and administer a grant program to mitigate the costs for providing workers’ compensation for firefighters diagnosed with PTSD. It specifically authorizes the awarding of grants to employers, or to the workers compensation benefits provider of employers, who apply for a grant so long as the employing fire department provides mental health awareness training for its personnel that includes training on:

  • Understanding the signs and symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, psychological trauma, complex trauma, and addiction;
  • Understanding, navigating, and reducing mental health stigma;
  • Utilizing appropriate de-escalation strategies; and
  • Managing stress, using self-care techniques, developing coping skills, and promoting resiliency. 

The State Fire Marshal’s Office must verify the compliance with such mental health awareness training. Employers may use a training program developed by another entity that satisfies this criteria. For example, if PEP develops this training, covered fire departments may use the training developed by PEP for compliance with this requirement. 

Lastly, the Act requires the Department of Labor & Workforce Development to provide a report by February 1st of each year that includes an analysis of the number of claims brought forward, the portion of those claims that resulted in a settlement or award of benefits, the effect of this Act on costs to the state and its political subdivisions, and the balance of funds available for future claims. The Report must be provided to the Chairs of the Senate State and Local Government Committee and the House Local Government Committee. 

The legislation will become effective January 1, 2024, but the Act as enacted repeals the grant program on December 31, 2028. 

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development must promulgate rules surrounding the operation of the grant program. We do not currently have a timeframe of when those Rules may be promulgated. However, after they are adopted by the Department, the Rules must be reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office and then be posted on the Secretary of State’s website for a minimum of ninety (90) days. Thereafter, they will be reviewed by the Government Operations Committees of each Chamber and officially adopted or repealed.