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It is good to report that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has made genuine progress in implementing the Hometown Heroes Survivors' Benefits Act. They are clearing up the backlog of cases that had effectively sabotaged the program during 3½ years of neglect, unrealistic policies and senseless red tape. Now, more families of firefighters who die in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke will receive the $300,000 Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) as Congress intended they should.
However, it took months of a unified, high-pressure attack from the fire service organizations — backed up by the bipartisan fury of Congress and tough orders from the White House — to make it happen. But they overcame the Justice Department's bureaucratic roadblocks and, as this is written, DOJ has approved 100 Hometown Heroes cases. Approximately 70 cases have been rejected, of which 30 are being appealed; only 115 are waiting to be heard, and that includes 25 new cases.
This may not be perfect, but it is an impressive turnaround compared to six months ago, when only 10 cases had been approved and 49 were rejected. At its peak, the backlog was up to 285 cases waiting for a hearing. More than 80% of the Home Town Heroes claims were being thrown out, usually for a reason that had no realistic bearing on the stress and strain a firefighter experiences on every type of emergency response.
Domingo S. Herraiz, director of DOJ's Bureau of Justice Assistance — who had experience in handling PSOB claims for traumatic line-of-duty deaths — was placed in charge of the battered Hometown Heroes program. He appears to be making good on his promise to clean up the backlog, cut the red tape and revise the standard for judging claims so that legitimate cases can be approved without putting firefighters' families through a needless ordeal. Additional people were brought in to process the applications while the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and other fire organizations helped survivors gather and prepare the required information. Each year, more than half of all line-of-duty deaths are caused by heart attacks and strokes, so it's obvious that the fire service has a vital interest in the Hometown Heroes Act and must keep a close watch on how it is being applied.
Once again, the President has offered a budget for the next fiscal year (2009) that slashes local and state fire-rescue programs almost in half. The cuts are aimed at grant programs like the FIRE Act and the SAFER, State Homeland Security and Urban Areas Security programs. Overall, the Department of Homeland Security will get a boost of $2.7 billion, with most of the money going for airport and border security, including walls, fences and 2,200 new border agents to keep out illegal immigrants.
The same kind of cuts were proposed in the 2008 budget, but as we reported last December, most of the fire grants were restored by Congress and the fire-rescue programs came out slightly ahead of the previous year. If things follow their normal pattern, that will happen again this year, according to Capitol Hill budget experts. But I'm not so sure. It's an election year and we're still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have economic hard times and the threat of a full-blown recession. The fire service has good reason to stay alert and be concerned.
By now, you may have heard that I retired last month as chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. I've been on the board of directors since 1993 and served as chairman for almost eight years. My reason for retiring is that I believe it is time for the Foundation to have younger leadership in the top spot. However, I intend to remain active as a member of the board and will continue to work on special projects with the Foundation's outstanding professional staff.