In the final hours of the 107th Congress, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge's (D-NC) Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefit Act, H.R. 5334, unanimously passed the House of Representatives early Friday, November 15. The legislation extends federal benefits to public safety officers, including police officers, firefighters and other first responders, who die of heart attack or stroke while on duty. Heart attacks and strokes represent a significant risk among public safety officers, accounting for nearly half of firefighter deaths each year. The U.S. Senate is currently considering the bill.
"We had to burn the midnight oil to get it done, but I am extremely pleased the House has taken this important step for the families of our hometown heroes who sacrifice so much for our communities and our nation," Etheridge said. "I pray that we can move this bill through the Senate and to the President quickly so that no family has to endure the pain and heartache of being denied benefits. Our police officers, firefighters and emergency workers deserve our gratitude and support."
This legislation is rooted in North Carolina, born out of a letter written to Etheridge by Mike Williams of Bunnlevel, who works as the assistant chief of Flat Branch Volunteer Fire Department and in the Office of the State Fire Marshal, and inspired by the death of a North Carolina firefighter. Williams wrote to Etheridge about the story of the late Thomas Earl Brooks, a Lumberton firefighter who died of a heart attack on January 31st in the fire station after running several calls and participating in a training exercise and whose family was denied federal benefits.
The current federal Public Safety Officers Benefits Program provides financial assistance to families of public safety officers (police, fire and EMS) killed in the line of duty, as well as to officers permanently disabled while on the job. Unfortunately, in almost every incidence of death by heart attack or stroke, it is ruled that the heart attack or stroke was not a direct result of an injury sustained in the line of duty and the family receives no benefits even though the deaths were clearly triggered by the rigors of the job. The Etheridge bill would correct that deficiency in the law.
"Our local first responders are our first line of defense in the war against terrorism, and this bill makes sure their families are covered should they make the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty," Etheridge said. Etheridge's bill, which has 113 cosponsors, has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Union of Police Associations and the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
The following is a brief legislative summary of the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefit Act of 2002.
The Public Safety Officers Benefit Under Current Law:
Provides financial assistance to the survivors of public safety officers (including police officers, firefighters and EMS workers) killed in the line of duty, as well as to officers permanently disabled while on the job. Assists the survivors of a public safety officer who "has died as the direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty" with a one-time death benefit payment (currently about $250,000), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Makes it difficult for families of public safety officers who die of a heart attack or stroke to qualify for benefits. Surviving families must go to great lengths to overcome the burden of proof and prove that the heart attack or stroke was "direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty" to do so.
The Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act of 2002 Allows the families of public safety officers who have died from a heart attack or stroke while on duty to receive the public safety officer benefit. Provides this benefit to firefighters who die within 24 hours of "participating in a training exercise or responding to an emergency situation."