Fairfax, Va.-- In a Capitol Hill press conference held July 11, International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) President Chief Jim Harmes called on Congress to investigate the implementation of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act by the Department of Justice (DOJ). "Today, we call on Congress to hold hearings to examine this program and determine the answers to these questions.
- Why has the DOJ taken so long to decide these claims and left the families of America's fallen heroes without the benefits granted to them by law?
- Why is there currently a three percent acceptance rate in a program designed to help the families of fallen first responders?
- What steps must be taken to knock down bureaucratic hurdles, lengthy delays and other obstacles that are currently preventing these families from receiving their rightful benefits?"
He asked Congress to act to ensure these families receive the benefits promised them by law. "Every day, America's firefighters, police and EMTs put their lives on the line to protect and assist their fellow citizens. We are concerned that the DOJ has not been taking care of the families of our fallen first responders," he continued.
The press conference highlighted the anguish caused by the DOJ's lack of action in granting the surviving families federally mandated benefits. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representatives Bob Etheridge (D-NC), Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Spencer Bachus (R-AL) urged Congress to examine the implementation of this important DOJ program. Several major national fire and police organizations participated; these include the National Fraternal Order of Police, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, International Association of Fire Fighters, Congressional Fire Service Institute, International Association of Arson Investigators and National Volunteer Fire Council.
In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act (P.L. 108-182) to expand the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program to give survivors' benefits to the families of fallen public-safety officers who suffer a fatal heart attack or stroke in the line of duty or up to 24 hours after a "non-routine stressful or strenuous" line-of-duty activity or training event. Almost four years after the passage of this act, 199 families of fallen public-safety officers are still waiting to hear from the DOJ about their claims. Forty-seven families have been turned down, and only seven families have received any benefits from this program.
By sharing stories of their loved ones, three surviving firefighter family members spoke of their grief and experiences of disappointment with the PSOB program.
Athena Schwantes' husband, Russell, was a career fire-apparatus operator with the Atlanta Department of Fire Rescue. In April 2006, he was participating in his mandated physical training after an apparatus training exercise when he collapsed from a heart attack. Schwantes was transported to the local hospital, where he remained until his death nine days later. Athena's PSOB claim is still pending. She was accompanied at the press conference by her two daughters, Holly and Morgan.
Jo Ann Tilton's husband was Volunteer Chief Gary Tilton, of the Katy Fire Department in Texas. Tilton died of a heart attack shortly after returning home from responding to a traffic accident in October 2004. Tilton served with the department for 31 years. Jo Ann filed for PSOB benefits in January 2005 and has yet to hear back from DOJ.
Sharon Purdy's husband, Lee, was a volunteer firefighter, fire safety inspector, pump operator and past department trustee with the Invincible Fire Department, Spencerville, Ohio. Purdy collapsed and died of a heart attack while operating a water pump at the scene of a house fire in January 2000. In the wake of his death, Sharon was instrumental in getting the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act enacted into law. Because it isn't retroactive, she will not benefit from this legislation, but she was there to support the families with pending claims.