OPINION: Families of Deceased First Responders Deserve Better

By U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.)

Four years ago, Congress did the right thing for the families of first responders who die in the line of duty from a stroke or heart attack. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not carried out the wishes of Congress in making sure that these families get the benefits to which they are entitled.

In 2003, Congress passed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act to correct a technicality in a 30-year-old law to ensure that the families of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMS workers who die in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke receive financial help.

I am a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and we recently held a hearing about the lack of action by the Department of Justice in processing these claims in a timely manner. In fact, the DOJ took three years just to issue its regulations for implementing the law, a delay that has harmed many surviving families of first responders. At the hearing, I questioned the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, about this issue.

It has now been four years since the Hometown Heroes bill became a law and the DOJ has approved only 12 claims, denied 50, and has another 240 applicants pending. This is unconscionable.

The DOJ’s claims process is bewildering at best. For example, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter in Florida was found dead 45-feet behind a fire line with a shovel in his hand. His family was denied benefits because it could not be determined whether he was engaged in “strenuous activity” at the time of his heart attack. Other families face burdensome requirements such as producing 10 years of past medical records.

This was never the intent of the law. Heart attacks and strokes are a grim fact of life and death in the high-pressure jobs of first responders. A recent Harvard University study found that firefighters engaged in emergency response are up to 100 times more likely to die of a heart attack than the general public.

The DOJ should immediately expedite all of its outstanding Hometown Heroes claims. It also needs to revise the criteria for evaluating claims to remove the bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented families from receiving the benefits that Congress intended.

Emergency first responders put their lives on the line for us everyday. We owe their families our gratitude, our respect and our help.

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