Are you financially covered for an injury as a volunteer firefighter?
Emergency service personnel are generally the type that put others before themselves. When the pager goes off, you often respond to fire and medical emergencies and are subject to conditions that could result in injuries that could range from minor to serious. Under PA Law, it is well established that a volunteer is considered an "employee" of the municipality where he or she volunteers for purposes of workers' compensation coverage (77 P.S. 1031). Therefore, a volunteer injured in the course and scope of these volunteer activities would be able to receive coverage for medical expenses as well as 2/3rds of lost wages for the volunteer's outside employment. But, a volunteer provider should be aware that this is not always going to provide adequate coverage while he or she is on the mend.
In a 2010 ruling by Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court, a volunteer firefighter sought additional coverage for lost wages under what is commonly called the Heart and Lung Act. The Heart and Lung Act provides for 100% coverage for lost wages and medical expenses to public employees. As the Court noted, "the Heart and Lung Act is intended to serve the interest of the public employer, not the disabled employee, and is based on a theory that the promise of full income to employees in a hazardous industry could serve to attract qualified individuals to professions involving public safety. Soppick v. Borough of West Conshohocken, 6 A.3d 22 at 26 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2010). While the Court sympathized with the volunteer firefighter, it ultimately rejected the notion that coverage under the Heart and Lung Act extended to personnel that were volunteers but covered only those specific classes of "municipal employees." Id. at 27.
An important take away from the Soppick case, is that a volunteer (and the volunteer organization) should consider the tremendous financial burden that may be placed on an individual who is injured performing volunteer work. While coverage under the Heart and Lung Act may not be available, there are other avenues that should be considered. Personal and group disability policies are among those coverages that should strongly be considered.
Another related class of persons should also be sure they have adequate safeguards in place - those who are career firefighters in privately run combination departments as many are not considered municipal employees nor considered municipal employees through some agreement between the municipality and fire company. It does not appear that such a situation has ever been truly testing in the courts, however.