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Officials Change Course in Case of Injured Massachusetts Firefighter/Paramedic

RUTLAND - Selectmen lashed out in a written statement at an injured firefighter/paramedic and at the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, saying Firefighter Paul Newcomb turned down a fair settlement that would have kept his salary at 100 percent while saving the town money on his medical bills.

They now say they'll abandon their efforts to change Firefighter Newcomb's benefits, not because they were wrong, but because they believe an expensive legal battle would have ensued.

Their decision means Firefighter Newcomb will continue to receive full pay until his retirement, which is expected later this year. It also means the town will continue to pay his medical bills. Officials couldn't be reached last night to say whether those payments would continue after his retirement, or to say how much the town has already spent on them.

Firefighter Newcomb, 43, was working on the ambulance Feb. 2, 2010. He was lifting a patient when a disc in his back ruptured. He has been out of work ever since, collecting his full salary of $50,821 under a state law that provides that benefit for police officers and firefighters.

But the town's insurance policy for the so-called 111F benefits had a $50,000 cap, which was quickly spent when Firefighter Newcomb had surgery to install titanium rods in his back, remove the disc and attach him to an electronic device to help stimulate the damaged nerves in his leg. That, along with the costs of other treatment, left the town holding the bills for his remaining medical expenses and wondering where the money would come from.

Selectmen said in their written statement they got advice from legal counsel and Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, which insures the town for workers' compensation, suggesting they move Firefighter Newcomb off 111F and onto workers' compensation to save money.

The board used the argument that Firefighter Newcomb "was injured while administering medical services wholly unrelated to a fire event ... " and because of that did not qualify for the 111F benefits.

But Firefighter Newcomb protested, saying his salary would be reduced by about 40 percent and 111F required the town to keep him at his full salary. He has also said that as a requirement of his job in Rutland, where he worked full time, he had to work on the ambulance and hold a paramedic level certification or he wouldn't have been hired.

Dozens of firefighters from around the state turned out at two selectmen's meetings saying they, too, work as EMTs, first responders or paramedics and were concerned that if Rutland officials were successful, 111F would be meaningless when they are working on an ambulance or assisting at a medical call.

But in their statement, Rutland selectmen said they offered an "an iron-clad proposal to Firefighter Newcomb and his union, guaranteeing that the town would pay him the difference in his salary that workers' compensation did not cover, thereby ensuring he continued to receive 100 percent of his salary until such time when he either moved to a disability retirement status or until he returned to work. In addition, this agreement would have set absolutely no precedent for cases elsewhere in the town of Rutland or in the state."

They said Firefighter Newcomb refused to discuss the plan, though at the board's Feb. 21 meeting he went behind closed doors in what Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts District Vice President Daniel F. Hartwell termed a "productive" meeting.

But on March 7, Firefighter Newcomb was again before the board and asked that the scheduled meeting be held in the open, a right allowed under some sections of the state's Open Meeting Law. Board members said that night they were using a different section of the law and Firefighter Newcomb did not have the right to have an open session, so he and his lawyer left.

Firefighter Newcomb said last night he had only received a copy of the selectmen's letter on Friday and had not spoken with a union representative or his lawyer, so he was not prepared to comment.


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