Firefighter wins lawsuit just to take state EMT test

Published 1:55 pm Monday, July 3, 2023

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A firefighter who was denied the disability related accommodations he needed to take the NC Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) exam will now get those necessary accommodations, under a landmark settlement between the firefighter and the NC Office of Emergency Management (OEMS).

Austin Freidt, a volunteer firefighter in Mocksville since his teens, became a professional firefighter in 2021.

In 2019, Freidt sought to become an EMT to advance his firefighting career and fulfill a dream he’s had since he was a child.

“I have wanted to be a firefighter since I was 5 years old,” he said. “But to work full-time in most firehouses today, you also have to be certified as an EMT and be available to respond to medical calls.

“When I asked OEMS for accommodations on the EMT exam, all I was asking for was an opportunity to take the test under conditions that allow me to demonstrate what I know. I’m grateful that we reached this settlement and I am hopeful that my experience shows others like me not to assume they cannot have a career as a first responder just because they need accommodations.”

The OEMS, within the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), oversees the administration of the NC EMT exam. Freidt registered to take the EMT exam in 2019 after completing an EMT course and passing a practical skills test called the scope of practice performance evaluation.

When he registered for the exam, Freidt requested a paper copy of the 100 multiple-choice question EMT exam and a reader as accommodations for his reading disability. These are the same accommodations Freidt received throughout high school and college, and during examinations to obtain his firefighter certifications.

In support of his request, Freidt provided OEMS a professional evaluation explaining that he has a reading disability and processes information more quickly and accurately when he hears something read aloud and has a paper copy of the information to read from.

Despite his documented need for these accommodations, OEMS refused to provide them.

The OEMS’s longstanding policy has been to provide extra time, a distraction-reduced testing area, and enlarged font – and only these three accommodations – regardless of a person’s disability-related needs.

This landmark settlement marks the first time OEMS will provide a reader to an individual taking the EMT examination, and the first time it will provide a paper copy of the exam since moving to a computer-based testing system in 2018.

The lawsuit, filed in Davie County Superior Court in September 2021, sought to vindicate Freidt’s rights to accommodations under the NC Persons with Disabilities Protection Act.

“The settlement ensures Mr. Freidt will have the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of emergency medical treatment, and not be held back by unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about his abilities. Mr. Freidt will also receive payment for attorney’s fees and costs under the agreement,” said a news release from NC Disability Rights.

“We celebrate this resolution with Mr. Freidt,” said Holly Stiles, assistant legal director for litigation at Disability Rights. “It is inexcusable, nearly 40 years after the passage of the NC Persons with Disabilities Protection Act, that disabled people are still fighting for commonplace testing accommodations. People with disabilities must be given an opportunity to succeed, not summarily dismissed as incapable of pursuing a noble calling as a first responder based on outdated, discriminatory notions of their ability to perform the job.”

Blanco Tackabery, a law firm in Winston-Salem, brought the case on Freidt’s behalf, then enlisted DRNC to assist with trial.

“I could not be more pleased with the outstanding victory that was secured on Mr. Freidt’s behalf.  From my earliest involvement with this matter, I was mystified by the State’s refusal to grant Mr. Freidt the commonsense accommodations to which he is clearly entitled under the law,” said Chad Archer, an attorney with Blanco Tackabery.  “Without the assistance and invaluable expertise offered by Disability Rights NC, I don’t know that the state ever would have made its 180-degree about-face and voluntarily agreed to grant 100 percent of the relief demanded in Mr. Freidt’s lawsuit.”     

As demonstrated by his choice of career, Freidt is a person who meets challenges straight on.

Born with hearing loss, Freidt also uses cochlear implants, which are seen as a barrier to employment by some fire departments.

Undeterred at the recommendation of Mocksville Fire Department Chief Frank Carter, Freidt completed the Mitchell Community College Fire Academy with honors, and in 2019, he was honored as the Mocksville Fire Department’s Firefighter of the Year.

Freidt currently works for the Spencer Fire Department and the Cornatzer-Dulin Volunteer Fire Department, and volunteers with the Davie County Rescue Squad and the Cornatzer-Dulin Volunteer Fire Department.

His intent is to obtain his EMT and become a full-time firefighter.