DEATH BENEFITS FOR ALL FIREFIGHTERS

Residents of Lancaster, Massachusetts, recently voted down a proposed one-time $650,000 annuity, funded through local taxes, for the family of volunteer/on-call Firefighter Marty McNamara, who was killed in the line of duty in a basement fire. The story, picked up by the national press, painfully exposed the fact that each year volunteer, on-call, and even some career firefighters in many communities in half of American states will make the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty knowing that their loved ones won’t be cared for.

But it’s too easy and too simplistic to blame overtaxed local residents of a single community with newspaper headlines that read, “Lancaster Picks Pocketbook Over Heart by 18 Votes.” Perhaps it’s not so much an issue of compassion as it is of leadership and economic realities. Frankly, statewide fire service and political leadership is to blame in any and every state where there is no significant death benefit program for firefighters killed in the line of duty. The politicians won’t move until the fire service flexes its collective political muscle and refuses to take no for an answer. And the fire service can’t move without consensus. That in some states firefighter unions have opposed death benefit provisions for volunteers-for whatever the perceived reasons-is beneath contempt.

Some believe line-of-duty death (LODD) benefits for volunteer/on-call firefighters to be strictly and solely the responsibility of the local community. Obviously, that doesn’t work, since what occurred in Lancaster could happen again in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Nevertheless, death doesn’t stop some from trotting out the argument that because career firefighters’ pension/benefits are a condition of municipal contracts, those for volunteers must be, too. (I remind these rocket scientists that expressing such parochial thinking doesn’t make any easier our advance toward greater federal-to-state and federal-to-local fire service assistance, among which programs is the Public Safety Officers Benefit legislation.) Restricting volunteer benefits to the hit-or-miss local level is to deny economic realities and potentially deny survivors of fallen heroes what they deserve.

A firefighter LODD is not “their” loss-it’s “our” loss, everyone’s loss. If we’re to do what’s right, the burden should be shared; therefore, creative statewide solutions, spearheaded by unified fire leadership, are required. Anything less is morally unconscionable.

That said, it’s high time that volunteer leadership at the national, state, and local levels coalesce and establish minimum physical fitness standards and maximum age limits for all volunteer fire departments.

A recent news report identified the growing trend of volunteer fire departments charging fees for services. The idea is to supplement operating costs by creating a tiered customer fee schedule on a per-call basis, the amount of which is determined by type and severity of call.

This has created a stir in some quarters. Some opponents of the concept feel the practice in some way compromises the purity of volunteerism. That’s nonsense, so long as the fees raised are used for operating expenses, equipment, training, and so forth-that’s to say, used to increase the department’s readiness and capabilities, thereby increasing public safety.

Others claim the practice is “double-dipping,” that it hits up the public twice for services already supported through local taxes, cake sales, bingo games, private contributions, and so on. This argument would make sense if local taxes and cake sales were cutting the mustard for a 21st century fire department with all its associated service demands. The alternative to a per-call service fee in some areas is just doing without. And doing without is a risk to firefighters and the public.

If the anti-fee arguments held any water, they would and should have been made 20 years ago when emergency medical and transport services began charging fees on a per-call basis. There wasn’t and isn’t negative public reaction to medical transport fees because, generally speaking, these fees are rolled into medical insurance premiums.

And that’s an important point. Joe Citizen might be quite annoyed, to say the least, at receiving a bill from the fire department for pumping out his flooded basement, extinguishing his bedroom fire, or investigating a smoke alarm in his small business. After all, he pays his taxes and even makes regular personal donations to the fire department. The crux of a successful per-call fee structure for fire department response, it would seem, is legislation requiring insurance companies to pay out for these modest fees. No doubt the insurance company would have the license to cover the payouts, but for the homeowner or business owner, the costs would be indirect and manageable.

Happy Holidays, and many thanks to our Fire Engineering readers. God Bless.

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