Washington, D.C. – On July 26, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed regulations to implement the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-182, commonly known as the “Hometown Heroes Act”), which extended the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Act to include deaths as a result of heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of responding to a line-of-duty incident. DOJ also is proposing other changes that would affect firefighters, such as creating separate regulatory definitions of “firefighter” and “rescue squad or ambulance crew member,” each of which will remain eligible for benefits, and including individuals performing duties for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and similar agencies at the state, local and tribal levels.
The docket for these proposed regulations will be open for comment for 60 days. At that time, DOJ will review the comments and draft final implementing regulations.
Enacted in 1976, the PSOB Act was meant to assist in the recruitment and retention of firefighters and law enforcement officers. Congress was concerned that the dangers inherent in firefighting and law enforcement and the low level of state and local death benefits might discourage qualified individuals from seeking careers in public safety. The PSOB Program provides death benefits in the form of a one-time financial payment to the eligible survivors of public safety officers whose deaths are the direct and proximate result of a traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty. The amount of payment is adjusted for inflation each October 1. The current amount is $275,658.
In response to the death of a North Carolina firefighter, Congressman Bob Etheridge (D-NC) introduced the Hometown Heroes Act. With the help of several major fire service organizations, that legislation passed in 2003. Since then, the organizations have lobbied DOJ to issue implementing regulations as soon as possible.
The proposed regulation incorporates changes not only from the Hometown Heroes Act, but from the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-390), the USA PATRIOT Act (P.L. 107-56), and the Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-196, commonly known as the “Mychal Judge Act”). Here are some important proposed changes.
Under the Hometown Heroes Act, the proposed regulations would extend benefits to public safety officers who die as a result of heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of engaging in “nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical [line of duty] activity.” (Please note that this change would not apply to public safety officers who are disabled under such circumstances. In those cases, the ordinary PSOB rules would apply, meaning that the officer would have to have suffered the injury while actually engaging in “nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical [line of duty] activity” at the time of the injury, rather than within 24 hours of engaging in such activity.)
Under the Disaster Mitigation Act, the proposed regulations would extend the PSOB Act to include workers performing official duties as either employees of FEMA or of state, local or tribal emergency management agencies or civil defense agencies performing official duties in cooperation with FEMA. Such official duties must be conducted in relation to a major disaster or emergency and must be hazardous in nature.
Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the proposed regulations would extend benefits under specific circumstances related to a “terrorist attack,” as specifically defined in the regulations.
Under the Mychal Judge Act, the proposed regulations would extend benefits to chaplains who are serving a public agency in an official capacity, with or without compensation, at the time of death or catastrophic injury.
The proposed regulations would also change some definitions, including:
- What qualifies as a “line of duty injury”;
- What “serving a public agency in an official capacity” means;
- Separating the current definition of “firefighter” into two separate regulatory definitions, one for “firefighter” and one for “rescue squad or ambulance crew member” (each of which will still qualify for benefits);
- What qualifies as an “injury,” including a clarification with respect to “mental strain”;
- Providing independent definitions for “permanently disabled” and “totally disabled,” noting that an officer may only meet the criteria for one or the other but not both;
- Limiting benefits for those who engaged in misconduct;
- Providing a 33-day time limit for filing claims as well as a procedure to appeal a denied claim.
How to Comment
For comments to be considered, DOJ must receive them no later than 5:00 p.m. EST on September 26, 2005. Interested parties may comment online or by U.S. mail, facsimile, or electronic mail. To comment online, visit http://www.regulations.gov and use the form provided for this regulation, including “OJP Docket No. 1333” in the subject box. To comment by mail, send comments to Hope Janke, Counsel to the Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, 810 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20531. To comment by fax, send comments to Hope Janke, Counsel to the Director, at (202) 305-1367. To comment by e-mail, send comments to PSOBREGS@usdoj.gov.
For more information on PSOB, including directions on how to apply for benefits, please visit the DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance Web site at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/grant/psob/psob_main.html or call the PSOB Program toll-free at (888) 744-6513.