Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) is among those who wrote to Justice on behalf of the families of two fallen firefighters from his state whose PSOB claims had been rejected. His office issued a surprise press release proclaiming that there had been a "breakthrough," that "standards and rules have been changed" and responding to a fire would no longer be considered a "routine" activity. Schumer said the statement he received from DOJ was "unequivocal." Maybe so, but a Justice Department spokesperson said that Schumer's information was based on a "miscommunication" and that "no policy has been changed." (The senator's office did not return my call to check it out.)
It may be that DOJ has stopped quibbling over whether a firefighter's heart attack was caused by "routine" or "non-routine" stress - but you can't be sure. Everyone agrees that there have to be strict standards to determine what constitutes a line-of-duty death. But the rules have to be reasonable and must not place an unfair burden of proof on families who are entitled to receive the federal death-benefit payment. Even though the Hometown Heroes Act was a new phase of the PSOB program, there is no excuse for taking 3 1/2 years to set it up and process only 53 out of 264 claims. And, it is inconceivable that only six have qualified as line-of-duty deaths.
There may not have been any policy changes in last month's skirmishing, but Congress and the fire-rescue service are determined that big changes will come out of the battle that lies ahead. Only the White House has the power to make it happen without a battle.