On April 19 the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), in conjunction with other national fire service organizations, sent a letter to President Bush asking him to look into the manner in which the Department of Justice (DOJ) is implementing the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act. The law, which passed more than three years ago, was intended to provide a “presumptive benefit” to the families of public safety officers who die in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke.
As stated in the letter, so far 40 “Hometown Heroes” applications have been processed, with 200 still pending. Of that 40, 38 have been denials and only two families have received the Public Safety Officer’s Benefit (PSOB).
DOJ has argued that the reason a majority of the first determinations have been negative is because the fallen public safety officer had not been engaged in “nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical” activity, which the law states must have occurred within 24 hours of the heart attack or stroke in order for the victim’s family to qualify for PSOB. If DOJ determines that a victim had not engaged in nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical activity while on-duty, they deny the benefit. For those cases where the physical activity threshold is judged by DOJ to have been met, they continue reviewing medical evidence and often request information not provided on the initial application.
The NVFC has been contacted by several families who were denied benefits, some of them after waiting for several years for a determination. In one particular case, a volunteer fire chief died from a heart attack that he suffered while in route to the scene of an emergency. According to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine, a firefighter’s odds of death from coronary heart disease are 2.8-14.1 times as high during alarm response and 2.2-10.5 times as high during alarm return compared to during nonemergency duties. The NVFC believes that emergency response constitutes nonroutine stressful and strenuous physical activity and that this application and others like it should be approved.
The letter sent to President Bush addresses this issue, stating: “The families of these fallen public safety officers have contacted us and questioned whether the DOJ is truly granting a presumption that public safety officers who died in the line of duty met the requirements for the PSOB program. We have specific concerns that DOJ’s interpretation of what constitutes ‘nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical’ activity is preventing public safety officers who die of stroke or heart attack within 24 hours of engaging in emergency response activities from qualifying for these benefits.”
In addition to the NVFC, the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) signed the letter.