Illinois Firefighter Injured During Live Burn Denied Health Benefits

An Illinois firefighter who was catastrophically injured in 2016 during a live fire training exercise, has lost his appeal to get health insurance benefits that are available to firefighters injured when responding to actual emergencies. Sean T. Heneghan was a firefighter for the City of Evanston.

On June 10, 2016, he slipped off the roof of a burn building and fell approximately 12 feet. He suffered severe injuries requiring multiple surgeries and has been unable to return as a firefighter. In addition to normal workers compensation benefits, Heneghan sought benefits under Illinois’ Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, 820 ILCS 320, that provided for “the continuation of employer-sponsored health insurance coverage for public safety employees, and their families, who are either killed or catastrophically injured in the line of duty.”

The city denied Heneghan’s health insurance request concluding training injuries do not qualify as occuring when the firefighter was responding to an emergency. Heneghan filed suit contending that certain urgencies that occurred during the training exercise converted it into an emergency. These urgencies include the unexpected failure of a saw being used to vent the roof, and the need to promptly ventilate the burn building to protect the safety of firefighters attacking the fire. The trial court rejected his arguments, prompting Heneghan to appeal to the Illinois Court of Appeals.

In a decision handed down this week, the Court of Appeals concluded:

  • The sole issue in this case is whether plaintiff’s injury satisfied section 10(b) of the Act.
  • Section 10(b) requires that the injury occur “as the result of the… firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency.”
  •  Our supreme court has defined the term “emergency” as “an unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response.”
  • “To be entitled to continuing health coverage benefits under section 10(b), the injury must occur in response to what is reasonably believed to be an unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response.”
  • Here, the City found that plaintiff was not responding to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency.
  • The issue presents a mixed question of fact and law. The historical facts are undisputed.
  • In Gaffney, our supreme court considered the eligibility of two firefighters, Gaffney and Lemmenes, injured in separate training exercises.
  • Gaffney was injured during a live fire training exercise on the third floor of a building.
  • Gaffney wore full fire gear for the exercise, and his battalion chief instructed him to treat the exercise as an actual emergency.
  • As the crew was moving the fire hose from the second floor to the third floor, it became entangled. The smoke from the fire left no visibility.
  • Gaffney followed the hose back down to the second floor and discovered that it was hooked around a loveseat.
  • When Gaffney flipped the loveseat backward, he injured his shoulder.
  • The court held that Gaffney’s training exercise became an emergency when the hose became entangled.
  • This unforeseen development involved imminent danger and required an urgent response because it left the crew “stranded on the stairwell to the third floor of the burning building with no visibility and no water to put out the fire.”
  • Moreover, when Gaffney went to untangle the hose, he “put himself at risk of becoming lost and disoriented in the smoke-filled building.”
  • The court further noted that Gaffney had no “option of ending his participation in the exercise after it became an emergency.”
  • In Gaffney’s companion case, Lemmenes was also injured during a training exercise.
  • The exercise took place at an abandoned building.
  • The firefighters arrived at the building in full fire gear with the fire engine’s emergency light activated.
  • There was no actual fire, but the firefighters’ masks were “blacked out” to simulate live fire conditions, and they were told to act as if there was an emergency.
  • The firefighters were instructed that a fellow firefighter was trapped inside the building, was running out of air, and would perish if not found and rescued.
  • The firefighters were instructed to advance a hose into the building along a predetermined path.
  • Fire department supervisors testified that the “trapped” firefighter was never in real danger during the exercise, which was performed under “controlled conditions.”
  • Lemmenes was injured when he attempted to free the “trapped” firefighter.
  • The court held that Lemmenes could not have reasonably believed that he was responding to an “emergency” under section 10(b).
  • The court noted that the exercise was conducted under ” ‘controlled conditions,’ ” no one was in imminent danger at any point during the exercise, and “[n]o unexpected or unforeseen developments arose during th[e] drill, unlike the situation in Gaffney where the hose line became entangled in an unknown object.”
  • Plaintiff argues that he was responding to what he reasonably believed to be an emergency when the saw failed during the exercise.
  • We are not persuaded by this argument.
  • The failure of the saw was certainly an unforeseen development and could reasonably be regarded as an emergency.
  • If the vent covers were not removed, then the firefighters inside the structure would be in imminent danger from fire and explosions.
  • However, plaintiff was able to climb from the roof, retrieve his axe, return to the roof, and pry open the first vent cover.
  • The emergency that plaintiff describes was the failure of the saw and his belief that the vent covers could not be opened.
  • That emergency ended once plaintiff was able to successfully pry open this first cover with his axe.
  • Once he had a suitable replacement for the saw, he was able to continue with the rest of the exercise.
  • He could not reasonably believe that his fellow firefighters were still in imminent danger after finding a replacement tool.
  • He also would have known that it was possible the open the remaining vent with his axe.
  • More importantly, he was not injured because of his actions addressing the saw’s failure.
  • The second unforeseen development was the lack of resistance in the second vent cover.
  • Plaintiff mistakenly assumed that the second cover would be as tightly affixed to the roof as the first.
  • Plaintiff stated that the second cover gave no resistance, and he lost his balance when he attempted to forcefully pry it open.
  • Simply put, plaintiff miscalculated how much force would be necessary to open the cover, used too much force, and fell from the roof as a result.
  • Therefore, plaintiff’s fall was due to his miscalculation of force, not from a consequence of the saw’s failure.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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