An investigation by the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Inspector General has produced a report that is sharply critical of the department's failure to implement the Hometown Heroes Act as Congress intended. It confirms complaints from fire and police organizations that survivors were being deprived of benefits they deserved because of needless red tape and inefficiency. On a positive note, the report also cites changes that have taken place as a result of fire service complaints and a DOJ administrative shakeup that has vastly improved the situation. The process also was helped along by plenty of heat coming from Congress and the White House.
As most of you know, the Hometown Heroes Act was passed in 2003 to extend coverage by the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program to include firefighters and police officers who died in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke. The fatality had to occur within 24 hours of a specific emergency incident or training exercise. The Act was especially important to the fire-rescue service, since more than half of all line-of-duty deaths are caused by heart attacks or strokes brought on by the stress and strain of a firefighter's work. Until then, only deaths caused by traumatic injuries were eligible for the PSOB payment (currently $300,000).
The Inspector General's report singles out the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs (OJP) for taking almost three years to set up the rules and procedures for Hometown Heroes claims. None were processed for 33 months and a backlog of more than 200 cases built up. When they finally did start hearing cases, more than 80% were rejected. Families were unable to meet the bureaucratic demands for documents and other information. The report states: "In some cases OJP used a narrow definition of what qualified as 'nonroutine' for evaluating and denying the claims." That policy has been changed so that all emergency runs are now considered "nonroutine" -- which is exactly what the fire service wanted and what Congress intended.
Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC), who introduced the original legislation, declared: "This report confirms...that the Department of Justice ignored congressional intent in its implementation of the Hometown Heroes Act. I commend the department for having made a number of positive changes...I hope the department will follow the Inspector General's recommendations moving forward."
That seems to be happening. Inside DOJ, the Bureau of Justice Assistance -- which successfully administered the original PSOB program -- took over the Hometown Heroes Act and completely reversed what had been a hostile and negative pattern. Instead of 80% of the claims being rejected, more than 60% are now being accepted. The latest figures show that 129 claims have been approved, plus eight that were rejected have won on appeal. Eighty-six cases have been denied, but half are being appealed (some for a second time) and have a good chance of being accepted under the new guidelines. Approximately 88 cases are waiting to be heard, but 35 of these are new ones and were not part of the backlog.
They didn't quite make Director Domingo S. Herraiz's goal of clearing the entire backlog by March 31, but they came close and seem to be making steady progress every month. Most importantly, it's no longer an adversarial proceeding to file a legitimate Hometown Heroes claim for the family of a firefighter who died in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke. And, they're encouraging those who have had a claim rejected to file an appeal. Every fire department should be aware of the appeal process and can get the information they need by contacting the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and other fire service organizations.
In addition to its short-range impact, the Inspector General's report is an important document that can help protect firefighters' families for years to come. Administrations come and go, leadership changes, control of Congress shifts from one party to the other and you never know who's going to be in the White House or who the Attorney General will be. And, you never know what their attitudes will be toward the PSOB and Hometown Hero programs.
Along with the Inspector General's report, the Bureau of Justice Assistance is writing "The Attorney General's Guide to the Hometown Heroes Act," which will be a manual to consolidate all instructions for claim applications. According to the report, one of its goals will be to "translate the legal language...and regulations into more understandable terms." Hopefully, it will be ready for use by next January, when a new President will appoint a new Attorney General who may, or may not, know much about PSOB and the Hometown Heroes Act. But the "AG Guide" will be there to guide him (or her) in the right direction.
HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and recently retired as chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.