Much Activity, But Little Progress in Battle over PSOB

Many members of Congress are furious because they drafted the law to make it easier for eligible survivors to file legitimate claims.

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.