Disabled volunteer firefighter finds allies in fight against age discrimination
October 10, 2007
When volunteer firefighter Pat Vannozzi suffered a massive heart attack after responding to a small wildfire in upper Kyle Canyon last October, he believed he was covered by insurance.
Throughout rural Nevada, hundreds of volunteers fight fires and respond to highway accidents and other emergencies. They aren’t compensated, but do receive insurance coverage while on the job.
But does that insurance coverage discriminate against older volunteers?
Decide for yourself.
Vannozzi, a veteran of the Clark County Fire Department’s Volunteer Station No. 81 at Mount Charleston, was 58 at the time of his heart attack. After Vannozzi was admitted to a local hospital, surgeons inserted two stents into his heart. He returned home a few days later, and in the ensuing months he’s made a substantial recovery. He remains 27 percent disabled.
When the bills came in he learned that state law cut off heart attack insurance coverage for volunteer firefighters age 55 or older. A large percentage of Nevada volunteers are older than 55.
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Vannozzi was pounded by medical bills, but he had enough strength to fight against what he believed was an example of state-sanctioned age discrimination. He worked through channels and lobbyists during the last session of the Legislature to attempt to have the law revised. Surely anyone could see the flaw in the statute, he thought.
During the Legislature, Nevada State Firefighters’ Association executive director Michael Heidemann said the revision was overdue.
“This is the right thing to do,” he said in April. “And the right thing to do is to protect the people that are protecting the lives and properties of the citizens of the state of Nevada while they are protecting those lives and properties.”
But when the Legislature adjourned, the law remained unchanged. Vannozzi was stunned. Talk about no good deed going unpunished.
Did the volunteers lack the political juice required to motivate key lawmakers? Was there a behind-the-scenes move by firefighters’ union lobbyists? Was it perhaps some bureaucratic bonehead looking to save a few bucks by maintaining a law on the books that was brazenly discriminatory?
Whatever the reason, Vannozzi’s push for fairness failed in Carson City.
But he’s since taken the battle to a different level. This time he’s found some powerful allies.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a civil rights suit against the state, the Department of Business and Industry, Clark County, and Sierra Nevada Administrators Inc. seeking corrective action be taken on behalf of Vannozzi and the hundreds of other volunteer firefighters age 55 and older who could be hurt by the state’s current policy.
Now it’s EEOC regional attorney Anna Y. Park’s turn to express her amazement.
“From our perspective, the law is pretty straight forward. In just a plain reading of the statute, there really is no justification for it. I think it’s typical where you have an age-based rule or law that’s rooted in stereotype. Essentially, what it’s saying is that anyone over 55 is going to have a heart attack. It’s not uncommon in age discrimination cases where you have varied decisions or rules made that are based on stereotypes. We’re saying it’s not appropriate and a violation of federal law.”
In its complaint, the EEOC wants a permanent injunction that would prevent the defendants from enforcing the discriminatory statute. It also seeks damages that would offset the costs to Vannozzi and other Nevada volunteers harmed by the past enforcement of the law.
In October 2001, Palm Gardens volunteer firefighter Bob Marsh suffered a fatal heart attack during a call to service near Searchlight. His widow was denied benefits, including a $5,000 burial policy, based in part on the fact her husband was 78 years old at the time of his death.
If 78, or even 58, sounds too old to volunteer to fight fires and help save lives out in Nevada’s vast rural expanse, consider this: Without those uncompensated volunteers, there would likely be no one to answer quickly in an emergency.
We live in a state where the average night shift Nevada Highway Patrol trooper has an entire county to himself. The volunteer system saves Nevadans millions of dollars each year.
Providing the proper insurance for those volunteers is the least we can do in exchange for all they do for us.
• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.
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