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Two Buffalo firefighters, a man and a woman, could not get along. Each time they saw one another in the fire hall, the stress built up.

Finally, they reached a breaking point in their mutual dislike. They had a heated argument.

And when the quarrel ended, each went off the job, claiming job-related injuries.

He was out for three weeks. She's still out, a year later.

The two found relief by taking advantage of a state law that provides financial support to heroic firefighters injured in the line of duty.

The woman and man each claimed job-related injuries caused by mental stress over their argument. That allowed them to stop reporting to work and to stay at home collecting full pay.

These types of questionable injury claims from mental stress in the Buffalo Fire Department are costing city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

At present, a dozen firefighters are not working, claiming that job-related stress has left them unfit for duty, according to Fire Commissioner Cornelius J. Keane and other fire officials, who say the trend is costly and distressing.

"The vast majority of firefighters are honorable, hard-working people," Keane said. "We're talking about a handful of misfits."

The commissioner said he is certain some of the firefighters claiming they are too stressed out to work are manipulating the system. He offered other examples:

Two firefighters claimed job-related stress after a fellow firefighter died in an off-duty accident in his home.

"One of the firefighters was off for a week, and we couldn't get the other back to work for five weeks," Keane said.

A firefighter disciplined for breaking departmental rules promptly informed department officials he was injured on duty because of the stress of being called on the carpet.

A fire lieutenant who is a weight lifter declared himself injured on duty from stress after he was told the department was seeking a disability pension on his behalf because he had failed a respiratory physical.

By declaring himself injured from job-related stress, the lieutenant is now sitting at home receiving his full salary, which is exempt from state and federal payroll taxes.

Another fire lieutenant, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer, declared himself injured on duty after the state refused to award him a disability pension. Rejection of his pension request, he claimed, left him stressed out and unable to work.

The firefighters are able to claim and take time for job-related stress as a result of an agreement reached in 1993 between the firefighters union and the city.

Until then, the fire commissioner determined whether a firefighter was unable to work because of a job-related injury. Now management must disprove the claim before a firefighter can be ordered back to work.

That can take up to six months and sometimes longer because of a backlog of hearings on questionable injuries and illnesses firefighters say are work-related.

The No. 1 priority

Currently, 12 firefighters are not working because they claim stress from their jobs.

That's more than half of the 23 firefighters out for injured-on-duty claims.

Deputy Fire Commissioner John A. Lydon said enough is enough.

"It is perceived that this is a card they can play, but we're taking actions to make it obvious this card is not available to them," said Lydon, who investigates injured-on-duty claims.

The department, he said, has started requiring that a psychiatrist examine firefighters claiming stress injuries. These same firefighters could wind up repaying the city for the paid time off, Lydon explained, if a hearing officer determines their stress claims were not job-related.

But scheduling a hearing often takes six months or longer. Meanwhile, the city must pay salaries and overtime to replace the allegedly stressed-out firefighters.

That adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to Louis R. Giardina, the city's director of employee relations, who blasted former city officials for agreeing to the 1993 memorandum.

The agreement, Giardina said, unfairly places the onus on the city to disprove firefighters' claims of being injured on duty, whether they are physically or mentally unable to work.

"It's appalling to think someone would enter into an agreement that would eliminate the fire commissioner's right to make the initial determination if someone is injured or taken ill due to the performance of duties," said Giardina.

In most fire and police departments, the commissioners or their managers determine whether an injury occurred while on duty.

The No. 1 priority of the city, Giardina said, is to modify the 1993 memorandum through current contract talks with the 860-member union.

If that fails, Giardina said he will seek arbitration to try to change the memorandum.

Offering an explanation

The 1993 agreement was intended to strengthen the city's position in curtailing frivolous injured-on-duty claims, according to Michael McKeating, who represented the city in crafting the document when he served as acting director of labor relations.

"We didn't have the right to have firefighters examined by our own doctors, and there were court decisions that said you couldn't deny anyone the right to injured-on-duty status without due process, and that means a hearing," said McKeating. He added that such claims were "out of control" in the early 1990s.

The memorandum, he added, requires a hearing within seven days of the injury claim and a decision by a hearing officer within three days of the hearing, unless the city and the union agree to waive the deadlines.

"Why is it taking them six months for hearings?" McKeating asked. "That's their fault."

Vincent R. Gugliuzza, president of Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, said the problem lies in the number of hearing officers.

"I don't think there are enough, and their schedules are overloaded," Gugliuzza said.

He added that the city's legal department until recently had not assigned an assistant corporation counsel full time to Fire Department labor matters.

"Addressing this through proper channels will correct it," said Gugliuzza, who favors the current system of making the city prove a claim of injury lacks merit.

"We follow the law. We are not above it," he said.

The agreement originally designated four independent hearing officers to preside over these types of proceedings, but last year the city and union added four more names and now are discussing adding an additional 10 names.

A way to fix it

Giardina said a sure-fire way to correct the stress-injury abuse would be to institute a form of workers' compensation for firefighters who suffer injuries on the job that are not directly related to fighting fires.

"How about a guy lifting weights in the firehouse who hurts his shoulder, or a firefighter who injures his back shoveling snow outside the firehouse?" Giardina said in making a case for less-generous workers' compensation rather than full pay through State Law 207A, which created injured-on-duty status.

Last year, there were about 500 injured-on-duty claims filed in the Buffalo Fire Department, though in many of those cases, it was simply to document minor injuries suffered by firefighters who were often able to remain on duty.

Giardina estimated that 18 percent of those claims could have qualified as workers' compensation cases because the injuries were not directly related to firefighting.

"With workers' compensation, the most you can get is up to $400 a week in pay. When a firefighter is on injured-on-duty status, he gets full pay, about $1,000 a week, so what is the incentive to come back to work?" Giardina said.

Union sees progress

Efforts are under way, Gugliuzza said, to assist firefighters in better understanding stress.

"The problem with stress is that it is an unidentified illness at this time, and the best way to correct this situation is through our Employee Assistance Program person, who has started going out to firehouses to brief firefighters on how to recognize stress and how to deal with it," Gugliuzza said.

When firefighters witness traumatic situations at accident scenes and fires, the union official said, they are now required to be debriefed.

"It's no longer just an option, and it is working. Even the most macho guys are opening up," Gugliuzza said of efforts by Firefighter Don Moses, the department Employee Assistance Program coordinator. "He's a trusted person."

Both Keane and Lydon say they recognize that stress can occur on the job and that in some cases it might be a bona fide illness qualifying for injured-on-duty status.

"There are stress cases that are totally legitimate, like witnessing people getting killed," said Lydon. "But there is also abuse."

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