Advocate: Be Prepared for Worst During Disaster

Mother Nature has taken a toll on communities throughout the country.

Nightly news broadcasts often show fire and rescue personnel helping in any number of ways including hauling debris, packing sandbags and moving fallen trees.

Proper steps must be taken, however, to ensure that should one of those responders be injured or killed, they are covered by the federal Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program (PSOB.)

"There needs to be a call generated from dispatch," said Kyle Ienn, Nebraska State Advocate for the Everyone Goes Home program of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Ienn put out a memo on the issue after being contacted by area fire departments.

"We've had a lot of flooding here with the Missouri River rising. People wanted to make sure their members were covered if something happened. So, I started looking into it."

When it comes to qualifying for PSOB benefits, Ienn said Department of Justice officials will be looking for specific criteria, including whether the person was responding to or involved in an incident in which the department was dispatched.

"Getting a group of firefighters together to help fill sandbags may be a nice thing to do, but if the company was not dispatched and there is no incident number, they are not acting in their capacity of responders," he said. "They are citizens or neighbors helping neighbors."

Ienn said the DOJ will be looking for dispatch or documentation that gives the person "legal authority to serve the public agency in an official capacity."

"I encourage people to document everything," he said, adding that acting without an incident number being assigned, the person is considered to be freelancing and is not covered by PSOB benefits.

He suggests having the department dispatched for a natural disaster emergency and including that personnel are "on alert with continuous call-outs throughout" which would justify them acting as a member of the company.

Ienn added: "Members and departments should document any injuries, sudden illness, infections that members encounter while working these disasters. If any of these lead to serious illness or death, documentation of exactly where and when the member encountered the illness (injury) will need to be documented to be covered."

Without good record-keeping, it will be hard to justify the person was acting in an official capacity, he added.

To be considered by PSOB as a Hometown Hero, the responder's death must have occurred within 24 hours of an incident response.

Ienn said if the department is going into another area to assist, it's important that the affected company requested mutual aid.

"I just wanted to make sure that everyone knows what has to be done to make sure their people are covered," he said.