Massachusetts Firefighter's Widow Denied Death Benefit

Firefighter Marty McNamara had two young daughters and a third on the way when he barreled into a burning basement last November. His family was protected by the same accidental death benefit that covers every part-time firefighter in the state: none.


BOSTON (AP) -- Firefighter Marty McNamara had two young daughters and a third on the way when he barreled into a burning basement last November. His family was protected by the same accidental death benefit that covers every part-time firefighter in the state: none.

On Tuesday, the town of Lancaster voted to deny McNamara's widow survivor benefits, a move that has sparked outrage in and out of the town, where the local newspaper's headline read, ``Lancaster picks pocketbook over heart by 18 votes.''

McNamara's death, and the subsequent vote, exposed a system in which towns ask part-time and volunteer firefighters to risk their lives, but leave their families with nothing if a fire takes them.

Lancaster selectman David Dunn hopes the case will create an opportunity for statewide reform.

``If Lancaster has a black eye and embarrassment, we should take that black eye and embarrassment and point out it could happen anywhere in the state of Massachusetts,'' Dunn said.

About 30 provisional votes remain to be counted, but Dunn said there's little chance the vote will change. Officials plan to meet Monday to consider other ways to help Claire McNamara and her family.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, half the states have no pension benefits for widows of volunteer firefighters who die in the line of duty. Some, unlike Massachusetts, also have no one-time payment to the families. A few don't even pay for funerals.

In Massachusetts, as many as 10,000 volunteer and on-call firefighters (who unlike volunteers are paid a small stipend) staff roughly 230 departments, according to Lawrence Holmberg, president of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association.

Legislation to improve their death benefits hasn't gone anywhere over the past few years. The most recent bill would have given the surviving spouse an annual pension equal to two-thirds of what a full-time firefighter would receive, plus $2,600 per child. That bill, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Daniel Bosley, was shipped to committee for further study.

Holmberg said his group has been brushed off because part-time departments are found in more rural areas with less political clout. Full-time firefighter unions have also opposed the bills, fearing that if the state gives benefits to volunteers, more communities would switch and eliminate union jobs, Bosley said.

``I'm not going to get into that,'' said Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. ``I don't have a rivalry with anybody.''

McCarthy said he has pushed hard for benefits for McNamara's family, adding it's ``unconscionable'' for towns to offer nothing to firefighters who die in the line of duty.

``The city or town where they work should provide for them, not try to have other people pay for their responsibility,'' he said.

McCarthy also criticized officials in Lancaster, about 35 miles west of Boston, for trying to fund the McNamara death benefit with a tax override, a politically tough sell, rather than simply agreeing to fund it annually.

The town absorbed a $1.3 million override last year. Some residents had already donated to the McNamaras and felt they couldn't afford another override, Dunn said. The override would have added a one-time charge of $300 to the property tax bill of a $250,000 home.

The $650,000 annuity proposed for McNamara _ which would pay about $30,000 annually _ would cost the town about $1.8 million over several decades, Dunn said.

McNamara's family, who live in neighboring Clinton, have received about $400,000 in one-time state and federal benefits, in addition to the charitable donations. Dunn said the town may consider raising funds through private donations or selling town property.

But Dunn is hoping for a broader solution: asking the state's 230 towns with on-call or volunteer departments for a one-time, $30,000 investment into a reserve fund to pay death benefits.

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