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"I want to tell you today that the Hometown Heroes Act will be fully implemented. This program will be administrated the way it was intended to be administrated."
Those emphatic words from President George W. Bush brought cheers from an otherwise solemn crowd of more than 7,000 attending the 26th annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. They had gathered in Emmitsburg, MD, to honor 87 firefighters who died in the line of duty last year (plus four from previous years). Despite the unusual October heat, the president joined them for the entire three-hour ceremony and — at his insistence — personally met and talked to every grieving family. It was an impressive show of compassion and caring on the part of President Bush, who was making his second appearance at the Memorial since 2001. (No other president has ever visited the site.) Afterward, many of the survivors told how the President's appearance had helped lift their spirits.
It also was a show of bipartisan support for the fire-rescue service. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives, delivered the program's keynote address, in which he told the families and comrades of the fallen firefighters: "Your heroes are our heroes. They represent the very best of what it means to be an American. We shall never forget their contribution to our nation."
At a time of bitter political strife in Washington, it was impressive to see a Republican president and a Democratic leader stand together to pay tribute to the nation's firefighters and support an issue that has plagued the fire service for almost four years. It topped off a week in which there were promises of a dramatic turnaround in how the Department of Justice (DOJ) will now administer the Hometown Heroes Survivors Act, which extended the $295,000 Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) to cover those who die in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke. However, the Justice Department's bureaucracy had defied the intent of Congress and the White House by putting up barriers that resulted in the rejection of a vast majority of the claims filed. Members of Congress and the leaders of every fire organization strongly objected to DOJ's handling of the claims, but nothing happened until a small group of senior White House advisors stepped in and put heavy pressure on Justice to change its approach.
Earlier in the week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to determine what had gone wrong with Hometown Heroes and what was being done to fix it. The senators took turns denouncing DOJ, and then heard horror stories from three widows whose claims had been delayed or rejected on technicalities when it was obvious that their husbands had suffered a sudden heart attack or stroke brought on by the stress of an emergency response. (More than half of all line-of-duty deaths are attributed to cardiovascular episodes.)
Domingo S. Herraiz, director of DOJ's Bureau of Justice Assistance, described new policies and procedures that would eliminate the regulations that had caused the problem. For example, emergency responses will no longer be considered "routine" and the demand for extensive medical records will be dropped. Instead of using medical records to find reasons to deny a claim, in some cases they will be used to help justify a claim. More people will be brought in to speed up the process and it is believed that this new approach will reverse the accept-reject ratio so that a vast majority of claims will be approved.
According to Herraiz, DOJ also intends to simplify the appeals process for claims that were rejected. Survivors, whose claims were turned down, should file their appeals as soon as possible through the director's office. Even appeals that previously had been rejected can be reinstated for a new hearing and it's estimated that half of the cases that were turned down may be accepted on appeal. Therefore, fire departments and families should act quickly to get their appeals filed. Help is available through Local Assistance State Teams (LAST) that exist in many states. For directions to reach a team, contact the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation at 301-447-1365 or www.firehero.org or firstname.lastname@example.org. The International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Volunteer Fire Council are working with the Foundation to help families and departments file claims and appeals.
The Justice Department has promised that all of the 200-plus claims that are currently in the system will be settled by March 31, 2008. Let's hope they can reach that goal and give them a chance to do the right thing. But it's up to the fire service to ride herd on every claim and start pushing the alarm buttons if it looks like the process has bogged down or DOJ is failing to deliver on its promises.
HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.