Lessons to learn from LODD benefits battle

By Jason Zigmont

Each year approximately 100 firefighters make the ultimate sacrifice. As a volunteer department, we have a responsibility both as an organization and as individuals to assure that any family of a fallen member gets both the emotional and financial support due to them.

A little over a year ago, I posted a story about Florida Firefighter Daniel Woodward, and the challenges his family was having in obtaining the Public Safety Officers' Benefit. After an extensive legal battle, they now have a judgment in their favor.

Every department can learn something from this battle.

Although reading court documents may not be your version of fun, the decision in the Woodward case versus the Department of Justice provides a unique insight into the pitfalls that can be avoided.

Ruled in favor
Daniel Woodward died shortly after battling a fire alongside his brother firefighters, in his own home. The legal battle was to decide if his death was due to the fire or a preexisting condition. While common sense may say that his death directly after the fire was due to stress and smoke of the fire, the rules used to determine if the family should receive the benefits did not agree. Ultimately, the court decided in the favor of the Woodwards.

While rules have since been modified — to allow more firefighters to "qualify" for the PSOB — each department needs to be aware of all potential benefits due to their members and how to comply. In my previous article, I discussed the need to be "organized, formed, or chartered by a unit of government to act on its behalf in providing fire services to the general public" and I hope all of you have taken the steps to assure that you are appropriately organized.

The challenge then becomes how to help support individual members and assure their family qualifies for every benefit they are entitled to.

Death benefits should not be a battle, but the case of Daniel Woodward is not the only one I have heard of or been asked about. I regularly get questions about what members or past members are entitled to when they pass on, either in the line of duty or not.

Other options
Although I know quite a few of the national benefit options, each state and municipality also has benefits they may qualify for. I usually refer the family to the department that their loved one served at, but even then the department may not know what to do or what benefits are due.

To this end, I suggest that each department appoints a bereavement and benefits counselor. This is a great job for someone who wants to be part of your department but may not be able to be an active member.

The idea is to have someone that is responsible for helping members' families through tough times and when they are ready, getting them the benefits they are owed. This includes PSOB, LOSAP, education benefits and any other potential benefits. On a personal level, the bereavement counselor is also a way for your department to show how much your department values them.

As a fire service we have fought hard to gain equal benefits and provide for death, disability and retirement of our members but the cause is lost if our members and their families cannot get the benefits.

Rather than putting it on our members or their families to figure out the system or even have to fight it, departments need to be proactive. I am happy that the Woodwards got all they deserved, but let's make sure no one else needs to fight for nearly 10 years to get what they deserve.

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