Federal Death Benefits For World Trade Center Victims

type='node' cid='171549' />Like all Americans, I watched with shock and horror on Sept. 11 as terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was unnerving to look outside my office window in Washington, DC and see a tower of smoke rising from the Pentagon. But, that was quickly overwhelmed by the sight on TV of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, for I knew that many New York firefighters would have no chance for survival.

There is little that I can add to the chorus of grief that has been expressed to FDNY and the many affected families, except to say that you have often been in my prayers.

If there is anything positive about these horrible events, it is the incredible generosity that has been shown to victims and rescuers alike. It also has been encouraging to see our political leaders move quickly to ease the process for survivors of those police officers and firefighters killed in New York to obtain federal death benefits.

The federal government has paid a death benefit to survivors of public safety officers (police, fire, and rescue squad) killed in the line of duty since Congress enacted the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act in 1976. The Department of Justice, which administers the program, receives about 275 benefit claims (both fire and police) each year. In normal times, it takes several months to process an application and pay the benefits.

The law, especially as it applies to the World Trade Center disaster, is simple. The federal government pays a death benefit ($151,635 in 2001) to the survivors of a public safety officer killed in the line of duty. Spouses and children may also receive educational assistance. However, even a law designed to be simple includes details that can delay payments to those who deserve and need them. Before paying a benefit, the Department of Justice must determine that:

  • A public safety officer was killed in the line of duty.
  • No disqualifying circumstances were present.
  • The officer was related to the family members seeking benefits.

The victim must be a "public safety officer" serving a public agency as a firefighter, law enforcement officer, or member of a public rescue squad or ambulance service. Public agencies include federal, territorial, state or local government organizations. Volunteer firefighters and volunteer members of rescue squads and ambulance crews are covered if they are members of a legally organized department.

The regulations provide two classes of public safety officers for the purpose of defining a line-of-duty death. One class is those whose primary function is crime control or reduction, law enforcement or fire suppression. Coverage for them includes any action they are authorized to perform. The other category of public safety officers are those whose primary function is not law enforcement or fire suppression. They must be engaged in authorized law enforcement, fire suppression, rescue squad or ambulance duties when they are killed.

The department also must determine to whom the payment should be made. If there are no surviving children, the payment is made to the surviving spouse. If there are both a spouse and children, half of the payment goes to the spouse and the other half is divided equally among the children. If there is no surviving spouse, the entire payment is divided among the children. If there are no surviving spouse or children, the payment is paid to the parents. A child must be 18 years or younger, or a full-time student and age 22 or younger to receive a benefit.

There are several disqualifying circumstances, including:

  • Intentional misconduct by the public safety officer, or if the victim intended to bring about his or her own death.
  • Intoxication.
  • Gross negligence.
  • A claimant (family member) whose actions were a "substantial contributing factor" to the fatality.
  • Stress, strain, occupational illness or progressive congenital disease (such as heart or pulmonary disease), unless there is a traumatic injury that is a substantial contributing factor.

Under normal circumstances, most survivors file claims with the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Department of Justice through their own police or fire department. The local department generally provides the bureau with enough information to determine whether a payment should be made. But, the process of demonstrating all the details can take several months. However, in the case of the Sept. 11 attacks, many of the law's requirements were not in doubt.

Following the World Trade Center attacks, President Bush and Congress moved with remarkable speed to streamline the application process. On Sept. 13 President Bush ordered Attorney General John Ashcroft to provide immediate assistance to survivors. That same day, Ashcroft took several specific actions. Rather than require each family to document a firefighter's death, he authorized the FDNY and other public safety agencies to submit blanket certifications. The claims forms submitted by family members were shortened. A special staff went to New York to assist with claims processing and to expedite payments. Additionally, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) sent a team to assist with applications and to provide counseling and other support.

Congress also moved quickly to ease the burdens of victims' families. Within a week, it unanimously approved legislation requiring prompt payment of the benefit. The Bureau of Justice Assistance must pay the death benefit to families of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack victims within 30 days after it receives notice of the death from a police or fire department.

Two days after the terrorist attacks, Ashcroft briefed the press regarding the steps taken to ease the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act claims process. In his remarks, the attorney general said, "The provision of benefits is an insufficient but necessary response on behalf of the American people to the … personnel who died answering the call of their fellow citizens on Sept. 11." The same is true for every firefighter line-of-duty death.

Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.