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Action Needed Over Hometown Heroes Act

I have discovered, with the passage of time, that I write about the things that really get me ticked off.   

Now, if you've been in the fire service for more than a week or two, you might have noticed that as a whole we tend not to be the most proactive lot. Any organization that waits for a siren to go off prior to action is easily defined as reactive. The mere fact that we've often got to push our own people towards good pre-planning, fire prevention, firefighter safety initiatives and the like are part of our reactive roots. 

Recently, however, something has occurred that, once again  requires not only our reactive indignation, but proactive efforts to ensure we don't have this happen again.

People will tell you I'm an optimist and they'd be correct, but maintaining that optimism is becoming more difficult as I get older. A few weeks ago, my optimism took a shot to the head. 

More than  three years ago, we all were enthused by the actions of the United States Congress over the passing of the Hometown Heroes Act of 2003. This act increased access to federal Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) for line-of-duty deaths in the fire service. It also addressed continuing concerns over the incredibly difficult litmus test the Department of Justice used to award benefits.

The standard, morbid, joke in the past was that you would drag a dying man to the exhaust pipe of the engine to ensure that they had enough smoke in their lungs to get the PSOB benefits. 

President photo
Many of us recall the photo of the president signing that bill into law. It seemed that in one small way the federal government recognized our efforts in protecting the citizens and economy of our country, and I for one felt better believing that my family would be better protected financially if something were to happen to me.

Fast forward to 2007 though, and the warm fuzzy feeling is now wet and cold.

The Department of Justice has reviewed 34 claims of the more than 200 submitted — that is less then 20 percent, a dismal record to say the least. That alone is plenty for us to get upset about. But wait — they denied all the claims.

That's not just a problem, it's a slap in the face and calls into question the validity of the line–of-duty death status that these individuals justly deserve. It should be clear to everyone that the justice department is focused on denial of claims and the system, just as in years past. 

Even though congress has made the need for greater access clear and the president has signed this into the law of the land, the justice department is back to its state of denial. I've two reasons for being outraged by this issue — their names are Chief Kevin Shea and Assistant Chief Mike Falkouski. 

Chief Falkouski was from my home county, and although not more than an acquaintance, we shared mutual friends, friends who are still dealing with his line-of-duty death from a stoke in January of 2005. Our community had just been struck by a large winter storm and his department had a structure fire in a building with acetelene tanks exploding inside.

Nursing home fire
Kevin Shea was a friend that I still miss to this day, and who colors my thoughts on firefighter safety, particularly when it comes to code enforcement. Kevin died in the line of duty, almost one year to the day that Mike did in January 2004.

Kevin had responded to an alarm of fire, at a nursing home, and initial reports indicated a working fire and active evacuation of the residents on a very cold upstate New York night. Needless to say that evacuating nursing homes in sub-freezing weather usually means a loss of life, with or without fire. 

It  turned out to be a false alarm, and after the call the crews got the rigs back in service and headed out to their personal vehicles.They found Kevin dead from a coronary in his vehicle.

But for the Federal Department of Justice, that kind of dead just isn't good enough. Its theory appears to be that there is no stress involved unless your fighting the fire with a handline in one hand and a halligan bar between your teeth.

Under the Hometown Heroes Act, one problem they'll face is that the law says for the death to qualify, it needs to have involved "non-routine stressful or strenuous work."

It is certainly clear to those of us in the field that participating in an active call is stressful beyond the norm.

Recent study
In fact, a recent Harvard study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine it was shown that firefighters have a much higher rate of heart attacks than the general public during a structure fire.

Heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular issues account for 45 percent of line-of-duty deaths. However, these numbers are not in line with other first responders such as police at 22 percent of line-of-duty deaths or 11 percent amongst EMS workers.

When we look at what our activities are as a fire service, 5 percent or less is spent in fire suppression. Yet the study concluded that over an 11 year period, 32 percent of the deaths occurred during that very activity.

As a member of the fire service, you are as much as 100 times more likely to have a fatal cardiovascular event during a fire call than any other event. Clearly this is an indicator of abnormal stress in comparison to our regular duties.

On April 10, New York State's senior senator Chuck Schumer held a press conference with the families of Chiefs Falkouski and Shea to express our shared outrage at the actions of the Department of Justice.
Senator Schumer has vowed to get the department  to live up to the spirit of the original Hometown Heroes Act that everyone was so proud of. If not, he vows to rewrite the bill so that it will have no choice but to.

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