Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The size of the federal air marshal force has been cut in half by on-the-job injuries that have sidelined nearly 2,100 marshals, while squabbling prevents health and safety policies from being implemented, government officials say.

Marshals say medical staffers are quitting the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) out of frustration as hundreds develop illnesses related to their heavy flying schedules such as barotrauma, decompression sickness that causes ruptured eardrums and sinus conditions often requiring surgery.

They are also developing deep vein thrombosis, a disease attributed to long periods of sitting that causes blood clots, usually in the legs, that could lead to cardiac arrest.

A July 21, 2005, memo from the Charlotte, N.C., field office obtained by The Washington Times says it was “experiencing a large amount of missed missions due to federal air marshals calling in sick and medical groundings by physicians.”

“Five percent nationwide are affected by sinus and ear problems daily. These groundings all have a commonality of being directly related to our current flight schedules,” said the memo, citing 17 documented cases of barotrauma in its office.

“Our health is being eroded at an alarming rate,” it said.

Policies to prevent such injuries or to determine sick leave and light duty for injured marshals are being held up by fights over wording and punctuation, said one air marshal. Others say they were fired for their disability then denied workers’ compensation.

“They have a track record of that,” said Frank Terreri, director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association for the Federal Air Marshal Service. “As soon as you’re hurt, you’re done. Every other law-enforcement agency offers you another position if you’re hurt in the line of duty. If I got hurt tomorrow, I would be done, and you just can’t treat employees like that.”

Conan Bruce, spokesman for the air marshal service, did not return several calls for comment.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not regulate the number of takeoffs and landings for commercial air pilots but limits them to eight hours of flight in a 24-hour period, said spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

However, pilots get 16 hours of layover time compared with 10 or 12 hours for marshals. Pilots are able to move around the cockpit and do not experience DVT, says David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.

“Pilots experience different health issues because their job is very different from what air marshals do; [marshals are] experiencing all kinds of health problems,” Mr. Mackett said.

In 2005, marshals typically flew three legs a day. Because of rapid attrition, along with a demand that more flights be covered, marshals now average four flights a day, five days in a row, then two days off.

From Oct. 1, 2003, through Sept. 14, 2006, the Labor Department says 2,450 air marshals applied for workers’ compensation. Air marshal officials protested or “controverted” 226 claims, according to a Labor Department official who added that the board denied more than 300 applications.

Jimmie Bacco was undergoing brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic to stop cerebral spinal fluid from leaking out of his ear when he was fired because he could no longer perform his duty. His disability claim has been denied, and he owes the clinic $80,000.

“The amount of guys terminated because of this is enormous,” says Mr. Bacco, one of several current and former air marshals now coming forward to confront the agency. “Some are demoted and given administrative positions at half their pay, others are terminated.”

Shawn McCullers was fired after developing deep vein thrombosis but still acts as the vice president of health and safety for the law-enforcement association for FAMS and has advised more than 70 marshals on getting claims approved.

“It’s quite ridiculous; medical issues are rampant throughout the service,” Mr. McCullers said.

One former air marshal asked to stay overnight at Los Angeles after a flight form Newark, N.J., rather than continue his mission to Seattle because of head pain, but the marshal was ordered to complete the flight. He did, and “blew out his eardrum,” Mr. Bacco said.

No longer able to fly, the marshal took a train home to Newark.

“What they are doing, is basically getting away with murder, and there is no oversight for them whatsoever,” Mr. Bacco said.

Last year’s Air Marshals Service budget for workers’ compensation was $3 million and went $3 million over budget. This year’s budget is $6 million, but $7 million has already been spent.

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