Fallen Pennsylvania Junior Firefighter Denied Benefits

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BROOKHAVEN, Penn.-- Locked in a glass case at Brookhaven Fire Co., all that remains of Christopher Kangas' junior firefighting career are some plaques, a teddy bear and roses, his gear, helmet and a pack of Wrigley's gum his mother said he always chewed.

Julie Amber-Messick, Kangas' mother, had hoped that her son would be recognized on a grander scale: on the National Firefighters' Memorial in Maryland, along with countless others who lost their lives "in the line of duty."

But according to federal government standards, her late son is not considered a "firefighter," since he could not physically enter buildings and "fight fires," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Tuesday.

And for that reason, Amber-Messick will never see her son's name emblazoned on the memorial in Maryland -- or $267,000 in federal death benefits.

Frank Daly, the lawyer fighting for Kangas' benefits, said Amber-Messick didn't appeal the Department of Justice's denial of benefits until after finding out that it meant her son's name would not make it to Maryland.

"It was never about the money," Amber-Messick said. "Being a firefighter is all that Chris ever wanted. It was in his heart."

In 2002, Kangas' aspirations of a long, firefighting career ended abruptly when a car collided with him while he was riding his bicycle to a fire.

At that time, Kangas was 14 years old, and a junior firefighter for Brookhaven Fire Co. He knew how to perform CPR, first aid, and was completing HAZMAT training. He learned how to operate high-pressured hoses and assisted firefighters at the scene of numerous blazes, cleaning up debris and helping any way he could.

Amber-Messick didn't anticipate that the Department of Justice would turn down her May 28 application for benefits under the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Act of 1976, which is designed to compensate families of public safety officers who die in the line of duty.

The Department of Justice has since ruled three separate times over nearly four years that Kangas' family was ineligible for benefits because a benefits act statute stated he must be permitted to "fight fires."

But in 2005, Judge Marion Horn ruled in the Court of Federal Claims that the Department of Justice's denial of death benefits was "arbitrary and capricious and founded on unreasonably restrictive reading of the words of PSOBA."

According to Horn, the Department of Justice based previous rulings on a statute definition that was not in use. Current benefits act definitions for a "firefighter" are much broader than the Department of Justice allowed, Horn ruled.

Tuesday, however, two federal circuit judges reversed Horn's decision and denied death benefits under the benefits act. One circuit judge, Pauline Newman, dissented.

Daly called the reversal flawed, "showing a lack of respect for junior firefighters and all that they do."

"The accepted definition (of a firefighter) the Department of Justice has recognized is being quoted from a bill that never passed," Daly said.

"And now the circuit court has totally ignored the bill that was passed, which gives a broader definition covering all firefighters engaged in all firefighting activities."

"This ruling sends a message that is the exact opposite of what Congress intended when they passed the PSOBA in 1977," he said.

Brookhaven Fire Chief Rob Montella was visibly upset about the court's most recent denial.

"When Chris died, we protected him. Our insurance company protected him, the borough protected him and the state protected him. But why isn't the federal government protecting him, or other junior firefighters across the country?" he said.

"I don't understand it. ... I thought we were there," Montella said. "I thought we were there."

Daly stated intentions of filing a petition with the federal circuit bench within the next 14-45 days. If that petition is not received well, he said he would take the Kangas case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Copyright 2007 by DelcoTimes.

Republished with permission of the DelcoTimes.

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