Tearful plea for firefighters on House floor gets Erin Grall standing ovation
It’s not every day your state legislator sheds tears while helping to pass a bill on the House floor.
It’s not every day a member of the opposing party sidles over to console your legislator and hand her a tissue.
And it’s not every day you get a standing ovation from your peers after discussing a personal tragedy.
But that’s what happened the other day when Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, discussed a bill that would require workers’ compensation to cover post-traumatic stress disorder for first responders.
“We lose too many good men and women to this disease,” Grall told fellow representatives shortly after Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, offered her a tissue.
One of those lost was David Dangerfield, 48, an Indian River County Fire Rescue battalion chief who shot himself Oct. 15, 2016.
Dangerfield was cousins with Grall’s husband, Michael Bielecki.
“David was the closest thing that my Michael had to a big brother,” Grall told lawmakers at the outset of her three-minute talk, warning them she might get emotional.
Grall recalled having the same reaction I did reading the haunting message Dangerfield left on his Facebook page shortly before his death.
"PTSD for Firefighters is real. If your love one is experiencing signs get them help quickly," Dangerfield wrote. "27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid off. It haunted me daily until now. My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all."
After reading Dangerfield's statement, Grall told her colleagues: “I remember reading the post on Facebook and my husband seeing it for the first time and saying, ‘What’s going on with David?’”
It was a question many asked after they heard of his death. He’d called 911 about 10:30 p.m. and said he’d be in woods off State Road 60 about midway between Interstate 95 and Yeehaw Junction.
“(David) always had a smile on his face,” Grall said. “You wouldn’t have known that these were his demons.”
She told legislators he was actively involved in numerous community projects and events. In 2013, the Treasure Coast Fire Chiefs’ Association named Dangerfield as Emergency Service Provider of the Year.
But as I noted in a column less than a week after his death, I was shocked workers’ compensation for first responders covered only physical injuries. A statewide move had begun, particularly after the Pulse nightclub shooting, to help police, paramedics and firefighters cope mentally with the tragedies they see serving us regularly.
Grall was surprised, too.
“Until something like this happens, so close, you don’t realize the deficiencies in the system and the fact we hadn’t acknowledged the cumulative effect of tragedy day after day for decades (on) people who sacrifice so much to care for (us),” she told fellow House members.
Early Wednesday morning, Grall shared with me how emotional it was to stand before her peers.
“Watching (my husband) process David’s death over the last year and a half and together learn more about PTSD and David’s final act has been unbelievably painful,” she said in a text. “We were numb at the funeral. There is no public testimony on the House floor. We were about to take such an important vote that the weight of telling David’s story and remembering all of his contributions was a very emotional experience.”
It took Grall a lot of soul-searching to decide to tell Dangerfield’s story.
“I struggled for weeks about whether I should share David’s story,” Grall wrote me. “Losing David is one of the most tragic events my husband’s family ever experienced. Telling such a personal story in a public place is difficult, but I believe it’s a fundamental component of what a ‘citizen’ Legislature should be.”
She showed that, despite the frequent raps they get and often deserve, legislators are real people, too.
The courage to shed a tear, spur some of us to shed another one about Dangerfield, and tell a personal story is one reason I think legislators gave her a standing ovation.
“I was trying so hard to maintain my composure that I didn’t even realize I got a standing ovation until you asked this question,” she wrote. “Any standing ovation was for the men and women who see so much tragedy through their service that they struggle to go on. In my mind, it was an acknowledgement of the disease and lawmakers’ responsibility to act.”
The bill awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature. He should watch Grall’s comments if he has any question about the merit of the legislation.
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman.