Fire Law: Amending Benefits For Responders & Survivors

I n late 2012, Congress approved and the President signed into law the Dale Long Act, the latest effort to close gaps in coverage of the Public Safety Officers Benefits (PSOB) Act. This caps an effort of nearly 40 years to completely correct flaws in the original act.

The basic law is simple. To be eligible for a PSOB benefit (currently $328,612.73), the claimant must:

• Be a public safety officer

• Die or be permanently disabled

• Sustain injury in the line of duty

However, when you look beneath the surface of these three elements, the law becomes somewhat more complicated. Interpretations of these three elements by the Department of Justice, which administers the law – not the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) – have led to subtle distinctions of who is eligible and who is not. In particular, the Justice Department’s rulings have excluded large segments of the EMS community. As a result, the law has been amended nearly a dozen times. Federal courts have decided a number of lawsuits claiming that the Justice Department has incorrectly interpreted the law.

Problem solved?

The PSOB was first enacted in 1976, when the number of firefighters and police officers dying in the line of duty was increasing every year. The law enforcement and emergency response communities were delighted with what seemed at the time like a simple law that would address the problems that the families of those killed in the line of duty faced. Unfortunately, to the surprise of many, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which initially administered the program, interpreted the law in 1977 to exclude the rescue squad and EMS personnel who routinely responded alongside firefighters and were subject to many of the same risks. Almost immediately, several members of Congress introduced bills to correct the problem. Only now, some 35 years later, does it appear that all EMS and rescue squad personnel have been included.

The Dale Long Act was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in 2009, following the death of a long-time Bennington, VT, emergency medical technician. Long died in the line of duty when the ambulance he was driving collided with a pickup truck while transporting a patient to the hospital. He served as a paramedic and shift supervisor for the Bennington Rescue Squad.

Unfortunately, Long’s death highlighted a significant shortcoming of the PSOB statute. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), which administers the law, determined that only public safety officers employed by federal, state or local government were eligible for the benefit. This excluded many volunteer rescue squads and EMS agencies, which often are organized as private non-profit corporations rather than government entities. This is the case with the Bennington Rescue Squad, where Long worked. With the enactment of the Dale Long Act, PSOB coverage is extended to cover non-profit EMS officers who provide emergency medical and ground or air ambulance service.

The new law also includes provisions intended to shorten the appeals process. According to the BJA, in fiscal year 2011 (Oct. 1, 2010-Sept. 30, 2011), the average time to receive basic documents was about 13 weeks to process a disability claim and about 21 weeks for a death claim. The processing time needed was another 20 weeks for disability and 22 weeks for death claims. Further, the new law clarifies which survivors are eligible for benefits. It specifies who may receive benefits if no child survives; if no spouse survives; or if both a child and spouse survive. In the case that neither a spouse or child survive, the benefit is paid to beneficiaries named in the officer’s will or most recent life insurance policy.

The new law removes distinctions under the prior law so that vascular injuries make a public safety officer’s survivors eligible for benefits. The PSOB authorizes payments to families of firefighters who die as the result of heart attacks or strokes, but this language had been interpreted to exclude deaths resulting from aneurysms. The Dale Long Act clarifies that deaths from aneurysms should be included. Finally, it now makes personnel who have been catastrophically injured eligible to receive counseling and peer support.

Over the years, Congress has heard testimony from families of first responders killed in the line of duty who were denied benefits because of strict interpretations by the Justice Department. Hopefully, with the enactment of the Dale Long Act, it will not be necessary to repeat the cycle. n