Resolution May Finally Be Near In Fight for "Hometown Heroes" Benefits

After months of bitter controversy, it appears that there may be a resolution to the long-running dispute between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the fire-rescue service over implementation of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act. If all goes well, starting this month, DOJ will use a revised set of guidelines to decide claims submitted by the survivors of firefighters who die in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke. The new "AG Guide" will be aimed at speeding up the claims process and is expected to result in more families being approved to receive the $295,000 Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) that is awarded for a line-of-duty death.

It has required powerful help from the highest level of the White House to make this happen. There also has been a steady stream of complaints from members of Congress, who are furious that the intent of the Act they unanimously passed almost four years ago has been thwarted by the Justice Department's bureaucracy. And, it is an issue on which all of the major fire organizations have agreed and stood together to demand that DOJ reverse its unrealistic policies for judging cases filed under the "Hometown Heroes Act."

To briefly recap the story, the Act was designed to extend the federal line-of-duty death benefit to cover public safety officers who died from a heart attack or stroke caused by a specific emergency incident or training exercise. Until then, only the victims of traumatic injuries had been eligible for PSOB payments, even though more than half of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths are due to cardiovascular episodes brought on by the stress of firefighting and other emergency responses. Since the Justice Department had been handling the traumatic PSOB cases in a prompt and fair manner for many years, it was thought that there would be no problem in picking up the Hometown Heroes cases.

Unfortunately, a different group within DOJ took charge of those claims and their performance was neither prompt nor fair. It took almost three years to set up their procedures and they demanded unreasonable documentation when it was obvious that the stress of firefighting had triggered a fatal heart attack or stroke. These DOJ examiners rejected almost all of the Hometown Heroes claims that actually reached the hearing stage and more than 200 are stuck in the pipeline still waiting to be heard. Pleas from the fire organizations and angry queries from Congress were ignored or brushed off with empty promises that things would get better. But nothing happened. Finally, in desperation, fire service leaders and a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress appealed to the President for help.

With Attorney General Alberto Gonzales being forced to resign for a series of major and minor blunders, the White House doesn't want any more problems from the Justice Department. Most importantly, they believe that the firefighters have a just grievance. Some of the Bush administration's top officials became involved and put heavy pressure on DOJ to expedite their handling of PSOB cases by assigning more people and simplifying the process. They also expect the new "AG Guide" to follow the "spirit and intent" of the Act by applying realistic standards and removing regulations that placed an unfair burden of proof on survivors.

The President's men believe the new guidelines will improve the entire PSOB process and solve most of the problems that families, the fire service and Congress have complained about. As this is written, it's not a done deal, but it was expected to be finalized and have the revised guidelines take effect by early October. That's when the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings to determine what went wrong with the Hometown Heroes Act, who's responsible and what has to be done to fix it. The House Judiciary Committee intends to hold similar hearings in late October. (Neither chamber was aware of the proposed "AG Guide" solution when they scheduled these sessions nor did they know that the President would name retired Federal Judge Michael B. Mukasey to replace Gonzales.)

Presumably, Judge Mukasey will be properly briefed on the Hometown Heroes Act before his Senate confirmation hearing. Meanwhile, there is reason to hope that the "AG Guide" will do what it's supposed to do. One of those involved in trying to make it work says, "Not only will it expedite the process, but it will produce results the fire service wanted and the Act was intended to achieve."

If it happens, a lot of people in Congress and the fire organizations will deserve credit for doing their part to make it happen. But the hard truth is that nothing would have happened if it hadn't been for the special effort of some high-ranking presidential advisors.

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 chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.