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Brian Walsh Act targets families of fallen police and firefighters

Federal Way police officer Brian Walsh died of a heart attack in March 2010 while on duty. - Courtesy photo
Federal Way police officer Brian Walsh died of a heart attack in March 2010 while on duty.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Legislators are considering amending a workers’ compensation law to include benefits to families of law enforcement and firefighters who die from a heart attack or stroke brought on by stressful or strenuous on-duty work.

House Bill 1445, sponsored by 24th District Representative Kevin Van De Wege (D-Port Angeles), aims to amend Title 51 (Industrial Insurance). The bill proposes adding a new section referred to as the Brian Walsh Act — named after a Federal Way officer who died from a heart attack suffered while responding to a call.

“I started working on this when officer Walsh first died,” said Van De Wege, who is a firefighter.

The bill also proposes an amendment, pertaining to firefighters, to include strokes as presumptions of occupational disease.

Brian Walsh Act

The Brian Walsh Act would presume that a law enforcement officer who dies from a heart problem or stroke is considered to have passed away due to a work-related injury. Benefits would be provided to the officer’s family.

Conditions would apply. Coverage would only be extended if the deceased officer, while on duty, engaged in activity that caused stress or strain beyond the routine amount experienced within the law enforcement field, and if that activity took place within 24 hours prior to the heart problem or stroke. Qualifying activities include physical law enforcement, fire suppression, rescue, hazardous material response, emergency medical services, prison security, disaster relief, emergency response activity or training.

The activity must pose significant dangers, threats, hazards or risks not generally experienced by the public, according to the bill. To qualify for the benefits, the law enforcement officer must not have experienced an existing medical condition that could have led to heart problems or stroke, according to the bill.

Honoring Walsh

The legislation is significant to Federal Way. Police Chief Brian Wilson, along with Walsh’s widow, Vanessa, testified before the Legislature in favor of the bill. On Tuesday, Wilson asked the city to formally support the legislation.

“We think it’s the right thing to do, given Federal Way’s circumstances,” he said during a city council sub-committee meeting.

Officer Brian Walsh, 34, was dispatched at 1:15 a.m. March 21, 2010, to the 33300 block of 26th Avenue SW, where a stolen SUV was found with two individuals sleeping in the back. As officers approached the vehicle, the driver started the engine and fled, striking three police vehicles. Officers fired shots.

While the officer-involved shooting was being investigated, officers including Walsh maintained a perimeter around the crime scene. At 6:45 a.m., Walsh was found collapsed in his patrol vehicle. CPR was performed. Minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Walsh was in good health prior to his death. His family has been denied industrial insurance benefits.

“When I heard that (Labor and Industries) did not rule that as an occupational death, I thought that was very problematic,” Van De Wege said.

The Brian Walsh Act would apply retrospectively to Jan. 1, 2010. As such, it would provide benefits to Walsh’s family from the conclusion of the current legislative session onward, Wilson said.

Wilson said amending the law to include the Brian Walsh Act is the right thing to do. He also said he was surprised to learn, following Walsh’s passing, that law enforcement is not specifically covered under Title 51.

“I was shocked,” Wilson said Tuesday. “Why is (Title 51) pertaining to fire service and not police?”

Firefighters

Title 51 already presumes certain ailments generally experienced by firefighters — respiratory disease, heart problems following exposure to smoke or physical exertion, for example — are caused by on-duty work activities.

These activities include fire suppression, fire prevention, emergency medical services, rescue operations, hazardous materials response, aircraft rescue, training and other duties related to emergency response, according to RCW 51.32.185.

The proposed bill would amend the code, extending benefits to firefighters who experience stroke. The same guidelines that currently apply to heart problems would apply to stroke.

To qualify for benefits, evidence must suggest the stroke was not caused by unhealthy lifestyle habits, hereditary factors or non-work-related activities.

Opposition

The Washington Self-Insurers Association opposes the bill. A presumption does not currently apply to law enforcement personnel because no scientific studies have shown that law enforcement officers are more likely than the general public to experience heart problems or stroke, said Dave Kaplan, Washington Self-Insurers Association executive director and Des Moines city councilman.

“It’s really hard to justify granting that presumption for police officers,” he said.

Holding an employer responsible for a law enforcement death caused by a heart condition is not fair without a scientific study, Kaplan said.

The bill would cost the state an estimated $678,915 through 2013. The cost would drop to between $354,502 and $454,502 for the years 2013 through 2017, according to a fiscal note accompanying HB 1445. Wilson said he does not expect Federal Way or its employees to accrue higher medical costs in association with the legislation.

Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has not taken a formal position on the bill.

“Everybody is analyzing the bill and trying to determine how it would play out in real life,” spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said.

Learn more

• To learn more about proposed House Bill 1445, click here (http://dlr.leg.wa.gov).

• To learn more about Title 51, click here (http://apps.leg.wa.gov).

Watch a short video from Brian Walsh's memorial service:

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