LA Amputee Firefighter Determined to Work in the Field Again

By Sherry Metzger, MS
Greg Malais
Greg Malais

After 25 years in active service as a Los Angeles, California, city firefighter, Greg Malais, 45, finds himself fighting for his job. Almost four years after he lost his right foot on the job, Malais's uphill battle to return to work continues despite a recent court ruling in his favor. "You've got to keep plugging away," he says. "You can't give up because if you do, they win."

October 5, 2002, was shaping up to be an uneventful day at the firehouse until Malais stepped off his fire truck. The driver of the truck unwittingly turned the wheel and ran over Malais's right foot, crushing it and his ankle. In trying to correct the turn and relieve Malais's pinned foot, the driver nearly tore it off completely and severed most major blood vessels, so that, despite the emergency doctor's best efforts to save his foot, an amputation was necessary. A prosthetist advised a mid-calf amputation for optimum socket fit and Malais received a prosthetic leg four months after the surgery.

In October 2003, a full year after the accident, Malais returned to the same LA fire department and has worked at a "desk job" ever since. "I worked out and tried to prove that I could do the job," he says. "I took the entrance-level firefighter exam, which included an obstacle course, and had a friend videotape the whole thing." The result was a half-hour of footage showing his agility and capability.

City, Fire Chief Fight Reinstatement

A physician's report, stating that Malais was fit to return to full duty, referenced this videotape. Though Malais thought he would be immediately returned to active duty upon his physician's approval, he remained at the desk job. "Nothing changed, so I asked, What's going on?' and I got laughed at," he says. Malais explained that despite passing competency tests and the physician's review, the decision to be returned to active duty in his fire department rests on the shoulders of the fire chief, or department head. "[The fire chief] told me that the city needs a legal compulsion or judge's orders to reinstate me," Malais explains. "So, the legal battle began."

The city hired a private law firm and, to Malais' great disappointment, tended to stretch out the proceedings. "We would set a date for a settlement hearing and the city wouldn't show up. So we'd have to reschedule. Or they would wait until the last day that they could appeal the decision and then file," Malais says. "I'm just trying to get my job back, and all I could do was watch all this time go by. The trial was put off by almost a year."

Wins Case, but Not Given Job Back

When his case finally went to trial, the judge ruled in his favor, citing the American Disability Act (ADA) and giving the city the maximum penalty allowed in a workers' compensation case. The judge decreed Malais's reinstatement and ordered the city to "back-pay" Malais for missed overtime work. However, his fire chief still didn't allow his full return and, according to Malais, made such discriminatory comments in legal depositions as, "There will never be an amputee firefighter in LA," and "You can't grow a leg back." The chief's position has been that based on his experience, amputees can't do the job. The chief also cites the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) rules and standards, claiming that NFPA medical standards state firefighters must have all their body parts. "The city is trying to hang its hat on that, but they can't," says Malais. "The NFPA is not a governing body. It doesn't say anything about what should happen in cases when you're injured on the job. It doesn't mention ability. This agency just makes suggestions and fire departments aren't necessarily in 100-percent compliance with them."

The city filed an appeal.

That case was recently decided, and the court once again sided with Malais. Though the head city attorney says he will not appeal this decision again, the fire chief hasn't given up the fight. Even as the city pays the penalty for disability discrimination charges, the chief writes letters to the fire commission and city council to keep Malais out of a job. "Even though I won, I don't gloat when I see him," Malais says. "Most people probably would have just retired. But, it's too big a part of my life for me to do that. I plan to be a truck fireman for the next ten years."

Keeping Up the Legacy

Malais comes from a family of LA firefighters, including his father, brother, and cousin. His 20-year-old son wants to continue the legacy. As Malais recovers from a handball injury to his biceps muscle, he anticipates his return to full duty. "It hasn't been easy," Malais says. "There were times when I thought, this is too much.' But I'm hard-headed and won't give up."

Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and may be reached atsherry@opedge.com