Citizen Staff Writer
THE COST OF PUBLIC PROTECTION
It’s common knowledge that public safety jobs are dangerous, that those workers put their lives on the line and that risk is fundamental to the identities of those workers. What’s less known – and difficult to pin down – is the cost of their injuries.
According to city and county records, injured firefighters and police officers have, since 2002, cost the city $14 million in insurance claims and injured deputies have cost the county $6.2 million in claims.
But while the city and county track worker injury insurance claims, other costs, such as overtime required of other workers to cover an injured employee, are not.
Local departments do not keep a database of information on the time off because of injuries or of days on “light duty,” the less physically strenuous responsibilities given to hurt workers. Data on injury-related counseling and the injuries’ impact on morale and staffing also is difficult to come by.
What is clear is that the city’s injury rate for officers and firefighters is more than two times the state average.
The Industrial Commission of Arizona reported that in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 10.9 injuries for every 100 full-time employees involved in “justice, public order and safety activities” in the state, and 10.3 of those were injuries to police. Of those injuries – about 2,300 total – 500 involved time off to recover from the injuries and 400 involved light duty.
In Tucson in 2007, the police department’s 1,100 officers sustained 256 injuries and the city’s 700 firefighters had 268 injuries. That works out to 23.3 injuries per 100 officers and 38.3 injuries per 100 firefighters.
Inthe past five years, the city has paid between $800,000 and $3 million per year on medical expenses related to police injuries, and between $330,000 and $715,000 per year on hurt firefighters.
Up until a couple of months ago, the county did its calculations differently – and in-house. Now Pinnacle Risk Management Services, a Portland, Ore., company with branches in every Western state, handles claims for the city and the county, bringing the county in line with industry standards that say risk management is more objective in the hands of a third party.
In the past five years, Pima County has paid between $252,000 and $988,000 per year on costs related to injuries to its 500 or so sheriff’s deputies. Unlike newer figures, those numbers include compensation, equipment and other miscellaneous costs. Both accounting versions include the indemnity costs and the expenses of administering the claims.
The pre-switchover figures show that between 68 percent and 86 percent of the cost was medical expenses, depending on the year. Between 8 percent and 27 percent involved compensation during deputies’ time off.
It’s the time off associated with injuries that really gets to public safety workers, who identify closely with their jobs, union leaders said.
“Generally, we want to get back on the job as soon as possible,” Larry Lopez, president of the Tucson Police Officers Association said. “It affects morale.”
In the fire department, the average time off work for common injuries such as neck and back injuries is one month, Tucson Fire Department spokesman Capt. Norm Carlton said. Those injuries are also the most common for police and sheriff’s deputies, according to workers’ compensation records.
Through a combination of workers’ compensation and salary payments, workers receive between two-thirds and 100 percent of their full salaries while on injury-related leave, depending on the department.
Sometimes the injuries are serious enough that workers can’t return to their jobs, at least not in the year they are given to heal. In the past five years, 21 police officers and one firefighter were forced to retire for medical reasons, said Liz Martinez of the Tucson Police and Fire Public Safety Retirement System Boards.
Those medically-retired employees are paid each month about half of the monthly salary they would have received for the rest of their working careers, Martinez said.
The cost of injuries, however, is not only measured in dollars.
Deputies Matthew Salmon and Bruce Haufe were shot in February, their injuries together costing the county more than $20,500 in medical expenses.
Police officer Erik Hite died after he was shot during a car pursuit in June. That incident, plus the shooting of Officer David Friedman, who was hit in the leg during an arrest, totaled $885,000.
But the effect on the departments, not to mention the workers’ families, is profound, said Matt Janton, the southern Arizona representative of the 100 Club, a nonprofit that helps families of public safety workers injured or killed in the line of duty.
You always think, ‘That could have been me,’” said Janton, who worked for the state Department of Public Safety and Northwest Fire.
Fulfilling their reputation as a brotherhood, public safety workers rallied to help the Hite family financially and personally, Janton said.
In an e-mail announcing a Web site in honor of Hite, the officer’s wife, Nohemy Hite, wrote: “TPD has been great and I appreciate their caring, thoughtfulness and promptness in making sure I didn’t have to worry about financial issues. Between the donations and Erik’s benefits at least I don’t have to worry about money right now.”
“We take care of our own,” police Sgt. Tony Kadous said.
Kadous is treasurer and co-founder of Hearts of Gold, a nonprofit TPD employees group created to do just that. Officers contribute at least $5 a month through their paychecks to the group, which gives grants to police employees or their families to cover medical costs. The group receives about $15,000 a month, Kadous said.
The 100 Club offers grants to small departments for safety gear and pays benefits to hurt workers, Janton said. Three Tucson police officers and a Pima County deputy received benefits between April and June, according to the group’s newsletter.
Help’s also available from Arizona Concerns of Police Survivors, Line of Duty Death Northwest Fire Interagency Team and local unions, representatives said.
That’s not to say departments aren’t making changes to reduce injuries.
Paramedic Dan Wallace used to hurt his back about once a year lifting weights during the hour-and-a-half firefighters are given each shift for physical training.
One of those back injuries caused him take a month off to heal. About two years ago, Wallace decided to end the cycle. He changed his workout to include more cardio and less weightlifting. He learned better techniques and volunteered to teach other firefighters how to work out more effectively and more safely.
He is one of about 20 of Tucson Fire Department’s peer fitness trainers, who work with colleagues on and off duty to improve their fitness and reduce on-the-job injuries. About 9 percent of firefighter injuries occur in training, not fires or medical calls, according to a 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the only national review of firefighter injuries. No similar department statistics were available.
The fitness trainers are part of the department’s campaign to reduce injuries, an initiative intended to keep more firefighters on the job, doing their jobs well and, secondarily, to save the city money.
In addition, the department overhauled its continuing education program this year to include more on-site and practical training, spokesman Carlton said.
It is department policy that firefighters get yearly physicals. Peer fitness trainers work closely with the city-appointed doctor to address any trends the doctor notices, Carlton said.
The Police Department has also made changes to reduce injuries, spokesman Sgt. Mark Robinson said.
“There are things that we would do in the ’70s that we would never consider doing now,” Robinson said, referring to detailed pursuit and arrest policies.
Technology has had a huge effect. To help officers multitask better, they practice using patrol-car technology in front of a video screen simulating the situations patrol officers may find themselves in, said Officer Steve Beller, who works at the Public Safety Academy. That training is intended to reduce vehicle accidents, which result in the most common, and expensive, injuries each year.
Sheriff’s deputies are now required to wear body armor, union president Sgt. Christopher Rogers said.
And the number of serious injuries as a proportion of employees in the department is falling, even while the number of total injuries is increasing.
Carlton said the number of firefighter injuries is up because the number of firefighters increased by about 170 from 2002 to 2008 and the department has gradually placed more emphasis on reporting all injuries, especially exposures to potentially dangerous substances.
The other major factor, Wallace said, is that in contrast to the trend among firefighters, the general public is becoming less fit, which means heavier. That translates into more strained backs.
injuries and cost
Tucson Police Department
Year, injuries, total cost, average cost per injury
2002: 311 claims $991,147, average $3,186 per claim
2003: 319 claims, $2,887,623, average $9,052 per claim
2004: 351claims, $2,748,603, average $7,830 per claim
2005: 325 claims, $781,732, average $2,405 per claim
2006: 321 claims, $1,357,269, average $4,228 per claim
2007: 256 claims, $1,132,186, average $4,422 per claim
Jan. 1 to June 30, 2008: 180 claims, $1,479,657, average $8,220 per injury
Because of the lag between injuries and associated payments, the figures do not necessarily mean the injuries happened in the time period listed, said Frances Bracamonte, who oversees workers’ compensation claims for the city.
Source: City of Tucson
Assaults on Tucson police officers
2002: 314 total, 1 serious
2003: 300 total, 6 serious
2003: 293 total, 14 serious
2005: 234 total, 5 serious
2006: 177 total, 4 serious
2007: 147 total, 4 serious
Jan. 1 to June 30, 2008: 58 total, 3 serious
Pima Country Prosecutor Barbara LaWall wrote in a Aug. 15 memo that Pima County prosecutors may charge aggravated assaults as misdemeanors unless the suspect has prior convictions or multiple arrests, is being charged in another incident, the incident is domestic violence or any other compelling reason.
In fiscal 2006, the office downgraded 49 of 215 charges of resisting arrest or aggravated assault on a police officer from felonies to misdemeanors.
In fiscal 2007, 48 of 209 of those cases were prosecuted as misdemeanors. The county fiscal year is July 1 to June 30.
Source: Tucson Police Department, Pima County Attorney’s Office
The State Association of Chiefs of Police did a nationwide study of officer injuries in 2003. Almost 700 agencies responded, although none was from Arizona. The study is the only national accounting for officer injuries.
• 369 agencies reported at least one officer duty-related injury in 2002.
• 84 percent of the agencies that responded to the survey had fewer than 51 employees.
• Of those agencies that reported an injury, the average per department was 7.7 injuries and 66.4 lost work days.
• 54 percent of respondents said less than 5 percent of the injuries were preventable.
• Sprains were the most common injuries, comprising 47 percent of the total.
• Broken bones made up 21 percent of the lost work days but 5 percent of the injuries.
• Injuries reported are most likely on uniform patrol and between 6 p.m. and midnight.
• Knees were the most common body part to be injured, followed by backs and arms.
Pima County Sheriff’s Department
Year, injuries, total cost, average cost per injury
2002: 357 claims, $560,007, average $1,568 per claim
2003: 364 claims, $1,326,495, average $3,644 per claim
2004: 392 claims, $1,707,015, average $4,354 per claim
2005: 354 claims, $1,367,945, average $3,864 per claim
2006: 382 claims, $692,252, average $1,812 per claim
2007: 339 claims, $360,220, average $1,062 per claim
Jan. 1 to June 30, 2008: 163 claims, $277,499, average $1,702
Source: Pima County
Tucson Fire Department
Year, injuries, total cost, average cost per injury
2002: 151 claims, $332,141, average $2,199 per claim
2003: 155 claims, $524, 734, average $3,385 per claim
2004: 191 claims, $514,833, average $2,695 per claim
2005: 188 claims, $308,243, average $1,639 per claim
2006: 250 claims, $480,930, average $1,923 per claim
2007: 268 claims, $761,541, average $2,841 per claim
Jan. 1 to June 30, 2008: 114 claims, $161,489, average $1,416 per claim
Source: City of Tucson