Fire Service & Congress Pressure Justice Dept. To Process Line-of-Duty-Death Claims

Regrettably, this column has to be another report on the fire service's running battle with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over its failure to properly implement the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act. Many fire organizations are engaged on a number of different fronts and some potential gains have been made. But there still is no sign that DOJ is changing its policies in evaluating and processing line-of-duty death benefit claims for public safety officers who die from a heart attack or stroke brought on by the stress of an emergency incident or training exercise.

According to DOJ's latest count, 269 claims have been filed for the Public Safety Officers Death Benefit (PSOB) since the Hometown Heroes Act was signed into law by President Bush in December 2003. In almost four years, only 10 claims have been approved, 49 have been rejected and 210 are still waiting to be judged. Congress and the fire and police organizations are frustrated by the long delay in implementing the program and infuriated by an 83% rejection rate that defies logic and the intent of the law.

Before adjourning for its August recess, the House demonstrated overwhelming bipartisan support for the act by voting 421-2 for an amendment that would provide extra money to hire more personnel to process the claims and start clearing up the backlog. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) wrote the original legislation with the intention of making it relatively easy to determine a line-of-duty death and quickly process legitimate claims. He denounced DOJ's Office of Justice Programs for being in "clear conflict with the intent of Congress" and for making families "jump through hoop after hoop to receive what they justly deserve." Other members joined him in relating difficulties many survivors have experienced in trying to collect the $295,000 PSOB award under the Hometown Heroes Act.

On the Senate side, during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the eavesdropping scandal, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) suddenly veered off the main topic to ask Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the Hometown Heroes Act with its bureaucratic delays, the denial of legitimate claims and the shabby treatment of survivor families. Gonzales has become the Democrats' favorite punching bag and his support is fading among Republicans — except for the one person who counts: President Bush. In response to Leahy's questions, Gonzales declared: "You're right, it's taken us too long and I apologize to the families." He blamed the delay on having to set up a new program and the need to consult with the medical community and law enforcement." (He did not mention the fire service, even though two-thirds of the Hometown Heroes cases involve firefighters.) When Leahy admonished him to "clear it up," Gonzales replied, "Yes sir, I agree."

As this is written, Gonzales is still hanging on as attorney general. However, we've been told that even the White House is "tired of hearing about" DOJ's mishandling of the Hometown Heroes Act and once again has sent word to "fix it" without further delay. On another front, the Justice Department's Inspector General is investigating the many complaints that have come from survivors and members of Congress. There is growing sentiment in Congress and among some fire organizations to hold congressional hearings to determine what went wrong. They want to know who wrecked a good program and they want to clarify exactly what the House and Senate had in mind almost four years ago when they created and unanimously passed the Hometown Heroes Act.

Meanwhile, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is trying to expedite the claims process by helping families and fire departments provide basic information that is missing in 51 of the cases that are stuck in the pipeline. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the Foundation — of which I am chairman — receives an annual grant from the Justice Department to support programs that aid fire departments and the survivors of firefighters who die in the line of duty. This year's grant was $1.2 million.) The fact that DOJ has been so supportive of the fire programs makes it even more difficult to understand how things could go so wrong with the Hometown Heroes Act.

But merely speeding up the claims process is not good enough. The outrageous 83% rejection rate has to be turned around, which means the Justice Department's examiners in Hometown Heroes cases have to abandon the doctrine of "routine stress" and realize that there's no such thing in the fire-rescue service. When the alarm sounds, it's never routine and it's always stressful — which is one of the reasons so many firefighters develop cardiovascular disease and why heart attacks and strokes account for more than half of the line-of-duty deaths.