By Samantha Bloch
The coronavirus pandemic has significantly affected first responders across America as some 911 call centers experience a record number of calls and frontline workers grapple with new and unknown circumstances.
State emergency executive orders in many states, such as Arizona and Delaware, mention first responders explicitly when defining essential workers.
A pending U.S. Senate resolution commends their bravery and courage for “putting themselves at risk while providing critical care to those who have COVID-19.” Legislatures around the country have reacted fast to help tackle the most pressing issues.
Expanding workers’ compensation benefits seems high on the agenda in several states. Minnesota recently enacted legislation ensuring that first responders qualify for workers’ compensation if they catch the coronavirus. The new law exempts them from having to prove they got sick on the job to obtain benefits. Similar initiatives are pending in Massachusetts and Ohio.
The bill in Massachusetts would establish the presumption that any coronavirus illness experienced by first responders, and any resulting hospitalization, quarantine or self-quarantine, is work-related. Consequently, any time spent in recovery or quarantine would be counted as duty time. New York has pending legislation that would allow volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers to be covered by the state’s workers’ benefits law for any condition, impairment of health or death resulting from COVID-19.
States have also implemented or introduced initiatives that would help protect first responders from getting sick with the novel virus. Health authorities in Alabama, Massachusetts and South Carolina have adopted administrative orders or other administrative decisions to start sharing addresses of all individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 with first responders so that they can take extra precautions when responding to a particular emergency call.
A pending bill in Louisiana has similar requirements and also mandates local public health authorities to determine whether a person with a presumptive positive COVID-19 result was handled by a first responder and if so, to provide verbal notification of the presumptive positive case to each first responder that was involved with that individual.
Other initiatives aim to help with the increased demand. A bill in Pennsylvania seeks to create a grant program for fire companies and emergency medical services companies to provide services during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Pending legislation in Ohio would allow pushing back end-of-employment dates for first responders who had to retire or re-employment of already retired first responders.
In addition to the evident health and organizational challenges for emergency workers, social distancing recommendations have also impacted states' 911 technological modernization efforts that would support the COVID-19 response. For example, access restrictions are delaying California’s planned upgrades to its Next Generation 911 system. The situation is evolving quickly, and states continue to introduce initiatives to support first responders. Visit NCSL’s 911 Legislation Tracking Database to access up to date, real-time information about 911 legislation introduced in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Samantha Bloch is a policy associate in NCSL’s Transportation Program.