When The Unthinkable Happens

By Rory J. Thompson

Volunteer firefighter John Husser answered three alarms in a row on Monday, June 27, 2005. It was an unseasonably hot and humid day, one of the first in a string of oppressive days to hit the Eastern seaboard this past summer.

Husser, an ex-Captain of Rockville Centre (NY), Alert Engine and Hose Co. #2, was one of the company’s more active members, having recently retired as a gas technician from Keyspan, the Long Island gas and power company.

John Husser went home after the call, turned on his air conditioner and tuned the TV to whatever ballgame was on that night, kicked off his shoes, laid down on the couch, and died of a massive heart attack. His daughter found him that way the next morning. He was 55 years old.

Now What?
While I’ll never forget them, the next few days were a blur of tears, anger, frustration and shock. Literally hundreds of firefighters turned out for the wake. I was honored to be asked to write the eulogy, and added equal parts of sorrow, history, pride and humor, as I remembered my friend.

But through it all, in quiet hallway conversations and over numerous cups of coffee, the questions kept being asked: Is this a Line of Duty Death? Who makes that call? Who do we notify? Isn’t there insurance money for his family? What do we do?

In memory of John, and to help all other departments who may one day face the unthinkable, the following is a short primer on what to do if one of your members falls.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is an excellent place to start your research. Located online at http://www.firehero.org, the site offers clean, easy-to-read instructions on what a fire officer should do first upon learning of a firefighter’s death.

Congress created the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to lead a nationwide effort to honor America’s fallen firefighters, according to the mission statement on the NFFF’s site. Since 1992, the non-profit Foundation has developed and expanded programs that fulfill that mandate. Its mission is to honor and remember America’s fallen fire heroes and to provide resources to assist their survivors in rebuilding their lives.

Eric Nagle, a computer specialist with the NFFF, says, “The foundation is here to primarily honor fallen firefighters.” It does so every October by holding a ceremony when it unveils names that have been added to the fallen firefighters memorial

The Web site contains succinct instructions to have a plan in place and some guidelines to follow. Emotions may run high, and someone, usually the Chief, is going to have to call upon all their leadership and diplomacy skills to guide members through this traumatic period.

The group also offers an eight-hour on-site class called “Taking Care of our Own.” According to Nagle, speakers include a chief who has been through the death of a firefighter, a mental health worker, and a family survivor.

The NFFF site also allows a search by state to see what benefits are available. For example, in New York, there is a $50,000 payout from the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, for both paid and volunteer firefighters who die in the line of duty. A maximum funeral benefit of $6,000 is also available, as is a weekly benefit of up to $800 to a surviving spouse, or less if there are children, but the children get their own benefit as well. It’s worth a visit to the site to see what your particular state offers to survivors of those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

The NFFF also offers a free, 31-page resource guide for handling firefighter line of duty deaths. It’s not something you’d ever want to use, but it’s worth requesting and having on hand just in case.

The International Association of Firefighters also has useful information on its Web site at http://www.iaff.org/safe/lodd.html. You’ll find many forms and guidelines available for free download.

One section details information about OSHA’s Summary of the Federal Benefits for Public Safety Officers PSOB and PSOEA Programs. For those unfamiliar with it, the site explains that, “the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act, (42 USC 3796, Public Law 94-430) became law on September 29, 1976. The legislation provided for a $50,000 death benefit for fire fighters (paid and volunteer) and law enforcement officers that died in the line-of-duty (emergency or non-emergency) from a traumatic injury. On December 15, 2003, the Act was amended to cover deaths from heart attack and stroke occurring in the line-of-duty. The Act does not cover deaths resulting from occupational illness or pulmonary disease unless a traumatic injury is a substantial factor to the death.

“On November 11, 1988, the benefit was increased from $50,000.00 to $100,000.00 and made retroactive to June 1, 1988. The dependency test for parent(s) was eliminated. Additionally, it provided that on October 1, 1988 and every year thereafter, the benefit would be increased to reflect any increase in the consumer price index. On October 26, 2001, as part of the Patriot Act of 2001, the benefit was increased to $250,000 and made retroactive to January 1, 2001.”

The benefit payout has since increased, and as of Oct. 1, 2005, it stood at $283,385.

The NFPA, has a wealth of information about LODD’s, as well as some sobering statistics on the number of firefighter deaths, causes, and a breakdown of injuries by year.

Rita Fahy, PhD, manager of Fire Databases and Systems at the NFPA, says, “There were 103 firefighter deaths in 2004, the last year we have statistics for so far. Figures for 2005 will be available in the spring.”

The statistical breakdown, available at http://www.nfpa.org, includes a chart that lists all the deaths and injuries from 1977, when the NFPA first began collecting data, to 2004, broken down by career firefighter, volunteers, and those considered nonmunicipal, such as forestry agents, industrial fire brigades, the military, the federal government, prison crews, and pressed-into-service civilians.

The NFPA also noted last year that “stress and overexertion remained the leading cause of fatal injury in 2003, as they have been almost every year. [In 2003], 47 firefighters died from stress-induced heart attacks (including eight that occurred traveling to or from an incident). That’s more than the 37 heart-attack deaths in 2002 and almost 10 percent more than the average of the past 10 years.”

Take Preventive Steps Now
If any of the above has given you pause, that’s a good thing. The NFFF has established an offshoot organization, Everyone Goes Home (http://www.everyonegoeshome.com). According to its Web site, “Recognizing the need to do more to prevent line-of-duty deaths and injuries, [the NFFF] has launched a national initiative to bring prevention to the forefront. The first major action was to sponsor a national gathering of fire and emergency services leaders. Organized by the [NFFF], the Firefighter Life Safety Summit held in Tampa, Florida, in March 2004 produced 16 major initiatives that will give the fire service a blueprint for making changes.

“The [NFFF] will play a major role in helping the U.S. Fire Administration meet its stated goal to reduce firefighter fatalities by 25% within 5 years, and by 50% within 10 years. The [NFFF] sees fire service adoption of the Summit’s initiatives as a vital step in meeting this goal.”

Everyone Goes Home offers helpful tips on keeping firefighters safe and in good health.

Until the time comes that the NFFF’s memorial weekend isn’t necessary, it makes sense for those in charge to know now what to do on the worst day of their lives.

Rory J. Thompson is a 35-year veteran of the Rockville Centre (NY) Volunteer Fire Department, and the department’s Public Information Officer. He is also a recipient of the Nassau County Fire Commission’s Gold Medal of Valor.

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