Colleagues of Fallen Pennsylvania Junior Firefighter Disgusted With Ruling

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BROOKHAVEN, Penn.-- The federal government could never deliver a gut punch more painful to Julie Amber-Messick than the loss of her son. But Tuesday's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which said, in essence, that young Christopher Kangas was never a firefighter, hurt plenty.

"This fight started because we wanted Chris to be on the memorial," Amber-Messick said, referring to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md. "Now, it's for all juniors and giving them the status and legitimacy they deserve -- to tell them that they are part of the team."

Kangas joined the Brookhaven Fire Co. immediately following his 14th birthday in 2001, and died May 5, 2002, after he was struck by a car while responding to a fire alarm on his bicycle.

Kangas' immediate and fire-fighting families have been battling the U.S. Department of Justice for nearly four years to get him full firefighter status and the $267,000 line-of-duty death benefit that comes with it under the Public Safety Officers' Death Benefits Act (PSODBA).

Tuesday's 2-1 decision backed three previous rulings by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, which said Kangas was not a firefighter because he wasnot "authorized to actively engage in the suppression of fires."

Though Kangas was a recognized member of the Brookhaven company, received training in 22 areas of firefighting and responded to 24 house drills and several fires prior to his death, Pennsylvania law prohibited him from entering a burning building before the age of 18.

Because of that prohibition, the court defined the tasks Kangas performed with the Brookhaven Fire Co. -- whether bringing out the portable equipment and fire hoses or providing first aid to fellow firefighters -- as "non-firefighting activities."

Members of the Brookhaven company who served with Kangas called the decision a disgrace.

"It's a slap in the face to every junior firefighter in the country," said Brookhaven EMS Captain and Upper Providence Police Officer Ryan Jackson. "It makes me sick that the federal government doesn't support these kids who get all this training so they are ready to go into a fire when they turn 18."

Jackson, who rode on the pumper that carried Kangas' casket before he was laid to rest, said "the definition of a fireman is a lot bigger than fighting a fire. There are people who direct traffic and drive the trucks and do the medical stuff. None of them go anywhere near the fire, but they are all part firefighters. They are all part of the team."

First Lt. Chris Rodgers, who oversees Brookhaven's 24 junior firefighters, called the ruling "a complete and utter disgrace."

"Our juniors were on (the appeals court) Web site everyday looking for that decision," he said. "Half of them have been here since Chris was here and half of them came after he passed, but they all want to see his name on that wall.

"They are what he was."

Amber-Messick's attorney, Frank Daly, will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

He credited the dissenting appeals judge, Pauline Newman, with understanding "the team concept of fighting a fire." "Judge Newman gets it," he said. "In the dissent, she points out that even people in a supervisory roles do not fit the definition of a firefighter in the (majority opinion)."

Like his predecessor Curt Weldon, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-7, of Edgmont, promised to introduce a bill in the House to broaden the definition of a firefighter.

"This is a miscarriage of justice," Sestak said Thursday. "Christopher Kangas, regardless of his status, was a firefighter and should be considered as such under the law."

Sestak said he would introduce legislation within a week to expand the definition "to include apprentices and trainees, regardless of age or duty limitations."

Peter Hof, president of the Upper Darby Firefighters Association and a career captain, hopes the Kangas decision shines light on many other firefighter cases where the government has challenged whether a death occurred in the line of duty.

"There are families of men who have died on the roof of a burning building who have been denied benefits," Hof said. "In Chris' case it was age, for other people it's a pre-existing condition or how they died.

"Whether it's a poor boy like that or the father who was a breadwinner for his family, I think everyone should be covered. What we need is for the government to clearly define who and what is covered."

Julie Amber-Messick, who can still recall her son falling asleep by the scanner and coming home sweaty and wreaking of smoke, could not agree more.

"We're not just fighting for Chris," she said. "There are a lot of families out there who are fighting and we support them."

Kangas would have turned 20 on May 7.

Copyright 2007 by the DelcoTimes.

Republished with permission of the DelcoTimes.

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