Las Vegas POA

Firefighter’s Training Injury Not Suffered During ‘Emergency’

Written on 03/03/2021
Will Aitchison

Sean T. Heneghan was a firefighter for the City of Evanston, Illinois. In June 2016, Heneghan participated in a voluntary live fire exercise held at the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. His participation in this exercise was part of a firefighter training course, and his attendance was approved by the Division Chief.

During the exercise, the live fire generated smoke and combustible particles. Heneghan was responsible for ventilating the structure. During the exercise, Heneghan’s teammate was instructed to use a saw to cut open ventilation holes in the plywood covers. However, the saw failed and Heneghan was instructed to open the ventilation holes with his axe. In the process, Heneghan lost his balance and fell approximately 12 feet to the ground.

At the time of Heneghan’s fall, he was holding his axe and wearing 75 pounds of gear, including a self-contained breathing apparatus. Heneghan was not provided with fall protection. He landed feet-first on the gravel below the roof, suffering bilateral calcaneal fractures as a result. Heneghan was taken to the ER and had eight or nine screws inserted into each heel.

Heneghan’s injuries required multiple surgeries, physical therapy, and left him with permanent pain and disabilities. His disabilities caused him to be physically unable to work as a firefighter and will require a future fusion surgery and ongoing life care.

Heneghan applied for benefits under Illinois’ Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, which provides for the continuation of employer-sponsored health insurance coverage for public safety employees, and their families, who are either killed or catastrophically injured in the line of duty. When the local pension board denied his request, Heneghan appealed to the Illinois Court of Appeals.

The Court upheld the denial of benefits under the Act. The problem, the Court found, was that the Act requires that the injury occur “as the result of the firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.” Under Illinois law, an “emergency” has been defined as “an unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response.”

Heneghan argued that the failure of his teammate’s saw was an “emergency” justifying benefits under the Act. The Court was unconvinced, however, holding “Heneghan is conflating two separate developments during the exercise to create one ongoing emergency. The failure of the saw was certainly an unforeseen development and could reasonably be regarded as an emergency. If the vent covers were not removed, then the firefighters inside the structure would be in imminent danger from fire and explosions.

“However, Heneghan was able to climb from the roof, retrieve his axe, return to the roof, and pry open the first vent cover. The emergency that Heneghan describes was the failure of the saw and his belief that the vent covers could not be opened. That emergency ended once Heneghan was able to successfully pry open this first cover with his axe.

“Once he had a suitable replacement for the saw, he was able to continue with the rest of the exercise. He could not reasonably believe that his fellow firefighters were still in imminent danger after finding a replacement tool. He also would have known that it was possible the open the remaining vent with his axe. More importantly, he was not injured because of his actions addressing the saw’s failure.

“Therefore, the City’s finding that Heneghan was not responding to an emergency under the Act was not clearly erroneous. We are not left with a firm conviction that a mistake was made by the City of Evanston.”

Heneghan v. City of Evanston, 2020 IL App (1st) 192163-U (Ill. App. Ct. 2020).

The post Firefighter’s Training Injury Not Suffered During ‘Emergency’ appeared first on Labor Relations Information System.