Firefighting, Legal

Firefighters’ Benefits Divide Prescott (AZ)

In the days after a wildfire killed 19 members of an elite firefighting team, the Arizona city where they were based banded together in a series of moving public memorials and tributes, overwhelmingly united in its support of the men and their families, reports The Associated Press.

That unity quickly has faded since residents learned Prescott is not paying full-time benefits to all of the families of the firefighters who died on June 30.

Now, leaders of a city nicknamed “Everybody’s Hometown” are receiving both vicious emails and ones commending them for not letting emotion get in the way. Grieving widows have lashed out at city leaders in public meetings, news conferences and national TV appearances.

“I was really proud to live in Prescott because you saw people coming together and now it’s just embarrassing,” resident Julie Abel said.

The source of the dispute is the fact that 13 of the firefighters were classified as temporary employees and not entitled to full survivors’ benefits. As a result, they receive smaller death benefits than the families of the six firefighters classified as full-time.

The widow of fallen firefighter Andrew Ashcraft brought attention to the issue by making public pleas to city officials, saying her husband worked full-time hours and, therefore, deserved the more lucrative benefits.

“There were 19 men that perished in that fire and for whatever reason, there are people that feel that some of them don’t deserve to be treated in a way that the others do,” Juliann Ashcraft said at a news conference outside the courthouse.

From the city’s point of view, the law is clear. The 13 firefighters were not classified as full-time, and the city said changing the rules after the fact would be illegal and also cost Prescott millions of dollars over the lifetime of the firefighters’ dependents.

“It’s easy to get emotional and everybody wants to do the right thing, and the city absolutely,” said city spokesman Pete Wertheim. “But what is the right thing? Well, for the city it’s limited by the law. And we’re fully complying with it.”

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