- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Jerry Hartsworm was the kind of firefighter who didn’t wait for the alarm.

When he heard over his pager that the nearby Freeport Fire Department was responding to a barn fire, he jumped into his truck and headed to the Melrose fire station, knowing his department likely would be called to help.

What happened that day eight months ago left Hartsworm changed, the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1srizyQ ) reported. His physical injuries healed, but the mental scars he suffered have left him tormented and unable to work. Adding to the pain is the legal battle he’s faced to get the city’s insurance carrier to cover his medical expenses and lost wages.

For Hartsworm, 50, who spent four years as a volunteer on the Melrose Fire Department, life has become a daily struggle.

“Every one of us, when that pager goes off, we know there’s a possibility that we’re going to die,” he said. “And we accept the fact that we could die. But what I cannot accept is the fact that I’m discarded - that I didn’t get hurt the right way to be covered.”

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Hartsworm had always wanted to be a firefighter like his father, a lieutenant for the St. Cloud Fire Department. He remembers walking into the fire station as a kid, smelling soot and diesel, and being proud of his dad.

When Hartsworm moved with his wife, Cyndi, to Melrose to take a supervisor job at Jennie-O, one of the first things he did was join the fire department as a volunteer. Although firefighters sometimes had to respond to grisly car crashes or other tough situations, Hartsworm said he never had any difficulty.

“Every dirty job that they had, I wanted to experience everything, so I did,” he said. “We had some real nasty calls and stuff, but I wanted to be in the middle of it. It didn’t bother me a bit.”

It was a warm, windy evening on May 3 when a large hay barn in Oak Township caught fire. Hartsworm was on one of the first Melrose fire trucks to arrive at the farm. The barn was already blazing, the air brownish with smoke.

He helped pour water onto the flames from a heavy hose for more than an hour. As they prepared to move the line, Hartsworm went back to his truck, hot and exhausted.

After a rest and a drink, Hartsworm joined other firefighters who were taking off sheets of metal covering the old barn to get at the flames. He and two others prepared to enter the barn. The assistant chief told him to put on his air pack in case the wind shifted, so he did.

Hartsworm was about 20 feet into the barn when he grabbed a large sheet of metal and handed it outside. He reached for the next one, looked up and saw the south end of the barn coming down.

The next thing he knew, Hartsworm was face down with fire all around him. He guesses he might have been knocked unconscious. He got on his knees and started crawling the way he had come in.

Outside, Hartsworm started walking toward the truck. Another firefighter asked him what was wrong. I think I got hit by something, he said.

Hartsworm was put on a backboard and taken to the hospital. The paramedics checked his blood sugar, which was elevated. Hartsworm is a diabetic. But at the hospital, the doctor told him it was normal when someone has a lot of adrenaline and is dehydrated. After some fluids, his blood sugar returned to normal.

Hartsworm had a large knot on the back of his neck. He guesses he was hit by a falling beam or piece of debris, and that wearing his helmet and air pack saved his life.

Trouble is, sometimes he wishes they wouldn’t have.

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Hartsworm spent three days in the hospital and two more weeks at home, recovering. He suffered headaches and was sensitive to light.

Then he had to go back to work. The city’s insurance company, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, indicated it was going to deny Hartsworm’s workers compensation claim. The trust contended that Hartsworm’s diabetes was the cause, not a workplace injury. They also said no other firefighters had witnessed debris fall on him.

That came as a blow to Hartsworm, who said it’s not surprising that the others didn’t see what happened.

“I understand the insurance company is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “They’re supposed to try to protect their clients. But somebody in a desk down in St. Paul does not know what it’s like to be in a fire. Nobody understands. Sometimes, you don’t see the hand in front of your face.”

Meanwhile, Hartsworm was dealing with mental and emotional fallout, including depression and listlessness. He said he felt like he’d lost his soul.

“I woke up and all my joy was gone,” Hartsworm said. “I was a very passionate person before this, at Jennie-O. I love that job. I’ve done so many great things there, and I still have a lot of great things to do there. And I didn’t care about any of it anymore.”

Finally, Hartsworm’s doctor sent him to a neurology clinic in the Twin Cities, where he was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury.

He started having nightmares: that he was trapped, burning, with no air to breathe, watching other firefighters get killed. Afterward, he didn’t want to go back to sleep.

“I’m in a vicious circle where I need sleep and I can’t have it,” Hartsworm said.

His wife said Hartsworm isn’t the same outgoing person he was when they got married 30 years ago. Now he’s irritable and short with her, and even their family doesn’t want to be around them.

“I miss the person that I was married to,” Cyndi Hartsworm said. “I try to be understanding, but sometimes I don’t understand.”

One night Hartsworm stood on a freeway bridge, contemplating suicide. The only thing that kept him from jumping was the thought of what the semi driver below would endure.

Hartsworm was put into a partial-hospitalization psychiatry program at St. Cloud Hospital, where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent five weeks in the program.

“They literally saved my life,” Hartsworm said. “They kept me focused, they taught me how to stay safe.”

But the city’s insurance trust informed him that it would not cover mental health treatment. The Hartsworms’ finances were stretched. They paid their rent late and went into debt. Harstworm had to apply for food stamps and ask Catholic Charities for gas money to get to his appointments.

Eventually, LMCIT accepted Hartsworm’s initial workers’ compensation claim for the physical injuries. In August, the state Department of Labor and Industry ordered the trust to pay a $1,000 penalty for the denial.

Still, LMCIT continues to deny the claim for the mental health treatment and subsequent lost wages. Hartsworm can’t understand why his mental issues aren’t considered a work-related injury.

“I fight for my life every day,” he said. “This is as real as going into a fire every day for me.”

He tells people he wishes he had died that day.

“Then I would have died a hero,” Hartsworm said. “I wouldn’t have been an embarrassment to the fire department and my family. Everybody tells me that’s a distortion, but that’s how I feel.”

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The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust is a cooperative joint powers organization formed by Minnesota cities in 1980. Cities contribute premiums into a jointly owned fund rather than paying premiums to buy insurance from an insurance company.

LMCIT’s workers’ compensation program has more than 900 members, according to its website.

Melrose Mayor Tim Vogel said the city doesn’t have a say in what the League chooses to cover, like a self-bonded city would. He and Fire Chief Jeremy Kraemer said they can’t comment specifically about Hartsworm’s case.

LMCIT also declined to speak directly about Hartsworm’s case, but did provide some statistics about injury claims.

There have been 1,166 injury claims involving firefighters in the past two years, said Darin Richardson, claims manager with LMCIT. So far there has been a payment in 505 of those for medical expenses or lost wages or both, he said, while 21 are in denial status.

Firefighters are considered city employees, entitled to the same workers’ compensation benefits other employees would receive, Richardson said. LMCIT receives many such claims and evaluates each one based on the facts, he said. There are very few denials, he said.

Mark Rosenblum, president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association, said he’s not familiar with Hartsworm’s case. But he said it would surprise him to hear that a firefighter isn’t covered.

“Most cities have very comprehensive workers’ comp plans and support their firefighters wholly,” Rosenblum said. Many also offer critical stress management debriefings and other outreach after a fire, he said.

Dave Ganfield, secretary of the Minnesota State Volunteer Firefighters Association, said he underwent a similar experience 14 years ago. While working as a volunteer firefighter for Apple Valley and a career firefighter for Richfield, he developed a heart condition that doctors said was work related, but the insurance company disputed that. Ganfield appealed but lost.

“Volunteer firefighters for many, many years were just considered exactly that - volunteers - and it was a question as to who really protected them if they were injured,” Ganfield said.

State laws have been changed to make it clear that volunteer firefighters are city employees and covered under workers’ compensation for any injuries that occur during a fire call, he said.

Being denied coverage is frustrating for firefighters, especially if their injury prevents them from doing their day job, Ganfield said.

“You thought, ‘I was doing something good for my community, and I’ve risked myself on the calls that I go to,’” Ganfield said. “And here something happens to me, and I’m being deserted.’”

Ganfield urges city officials to discuss ahead of time what would happen if someone were injured. Fire departments also could do a better job of informing their firefighters, he said.

“Most people just think if something happens, it’ll be taken care of,” Ganfield said.

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Hartsworm kept quiet for a long time, not wanting to cause problems for the fire department or the city. He resisted hiring a lawyer, but finally did to try to recoup his medical expenses.

“I’m not suing anybody,” he said. “I don’t want any money. I’m not asking for anything. I just want my bills covered, and I want to get better.”

His lawyer, Howard Helgen, said he hasn’t received an official response from the trust about why the claim is being denied. But Helgen said Hartsworm’s doctors have made it clear that he is suffering an emotional reaction to a physical injury. Helgen provided a letter from one of Hartsworm’s physicians, who wrote she believes his PTSD is the direct result of the firefighting incident.

“From my perspective, it’s unfortunate that he’s had to hire an attorney to get the necessary benefits and treatment,” Helgen said.

Hartsworm’s employer, Jennie-O, is now paying him disability. He’s working on getting better. His therapist has helped him understand what triggers his PTSD - a fire alarm, driving past the fire station.

Hartsworm said he’s not seeking publicity, but hopes that telling his story might help others.

“It just pains me to think that this could happen to somebody else,” he said. “And if there’s any injustice done to me, hopefully I can fix it so it doesn’t happen again to the next person.”

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com


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