Congress' intent, to provide a broader scope for definition of line-of-duty deaths and financial security for the survivors has finally evolved into concrete guidelines.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel for loved ones of fallen heroes.
Regulations for the Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) program have been rewritten nearly three years after Congress passed federal legislation known as the Hometown Heroes Act that amended LODD criteria up to that time.
The new rules allow benefits to be paid to relatives of personnel who suffer a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of a response or strenuous on-duty activity. That was not the case previously, said Hope Janke, counsel to the PSOB director.
"We're very excited that the regulations are finally done," she said, adding that the entire program was completely re-vamped in order to insure the families of people killed in the line of duty are compensated.
The law specifically defines a firefighter to be inclusive of those performing other duties such as hazmat and EMS. Currently, survivors may receive $275,658.
Originally, the rules were very specific about who would be eligible for benefits. It would have made it nearly impossible for the families of heroes who suffered a heart attack or stroke to be compensated.
Knowledge of pre-existing conditions as well as unhealthy habits such as smoking, substance and alcohol abuse will be taken into consideration before a claim is decided.
Janke said her office has kept in contact with families over the past three years, keeping them apprised of the status. The regulations have been scrutinized, and modified a number of times over the period.
And, concerns raised by fire service organizations have been addressed.
Now, personnel in her office have started reviewing approximately 140 PSOB claims to determine if the criteria has been met.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation also has been keeping tabs on the bill. When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, the family receives a packet of information regarding PSOB, said Linda Hurley, chief of staff.
"I know families have been waiting to get the regulations out the door," she said. "Their wait is finally over."
The PSOB regulations go into effect Sept. 11.
A number of fire service organizations have been working to make sure the rules were fair.
"It was important that the language was correct, and concerns were addressed," said David Finger, legislative representative for the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Officials at the Congressional Fire Service Institute say they will be keeping an eye on things as the PSOB funds are granted. "I think they've understood our concerns, and worked closely with us," said Sean Carroll, director of legislation.
Now, however, the rules have eased. Yet, Carroll said it will be interesting to see how it is interpreted. "I'm not an attorney. I know it will be open..."
Fire officials say even for the government, the process took way to long. They never imagined it would take three years to get such an important law into effect.
The International Association of Fire Fighters also has been working on the issues. General President Harold Schaitberger issued the following statement:
""...It is unfortunate that the families of fallen fire fighters have waited so long, but we needed to ensure that our members' families are fully protected and receive due benefits in the event of a line-of-duty death."
Schaitberger went on to say that the IAFF provided extensive comments and, through bipartisan political outreach, was successful in educating the DOJ on several areas of concern and in garnering the support of Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), Representative Roy Blunt R-MO), Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to revise the regulations.
"It was a long battle, but has ended in another success and serves as one more example of our ability to achieve results against long odds. The new regulations ensure that the intent of Hometown Heroes is met and that the families of fire fighters who perish as a result of a heart attack or stroke receive PSOB benefits."