Family of Alabama Firefighter Joins Fight for Benefits

Updated: 07-13-2007 12:52:23 PM

MARY ORNDORFF News Washington correspondent
Birmingham News (Alabama)


WASHINGTON - Pamela Horton's father, a volunteer firefighter, died during a brush fire in Shelby County more than three years ago and her application for federal survivor benefits is still pending, stuck in a bureaucratic backlog that members of Congress complained Wednesday is unfair and unnecessary.

''Not only am I heartbroken at the loss of my dad, now I'm disgusted. I want answers. Why are these people doing us this way?'' Horton said from her home in Brierfield.

Robert Lee Smith was a founding member and veteran of the West Shelby Volunteer Fire Department and was 68 when he died of a heart attack at the scene of a fire near Montevallo in 2004.

When his relatives learned of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit, signed by President Bush in 2003, they applied. It provides a minimum of $250,000 to families of public safety officers whose work resulted in a fatal heart attack or stroke.

But the U.S. Department of Justice, which didn't finish writing the rules of the new program until 2006, has processed only a few of the applications. So far, seven have been approved, 47 denied and 199 are pending, according to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Members of Congress, spurred by family members, are now complaining about the delays, including Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills. Horton contacted his office late last year and he's been trying to help her get an answer ever since.

''The least we can do to recognize those who have lost their lives protecting their community is to fairly and expeditiously respond to their families during a time of need,'' Bachus said at a Capitol Hill news conference with other members.

Horton, herself a volunteer firefighter, said she's faxed and mailed more than 100 pages of documentation about her father's death from fire departments, paramedics, police, forestry officials and emergency room doctors, all saved in a binder now 21/2 inches thick. But officials in Washington with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, when she's able to reach them, always want more.

''It's a nightmare to have to keep dragging this up,'' Horton said. ''We're at our wits' end.''

The latest snag is her father's medical history: Washington wants one and Horton says he didn't have one.

''My daddy was old school. He didn't go to the hospital when he stumped his toe,'' Horton said. ''I can't give you something that ain't there.''

A spokesman for the Justice Department said Wednesday that processing Public Safety Officers' Benefit claims involves different levels of review and complex legal issues, and requires collection of diverse facts and documents for each case.

''The department continues to work to ensure that all claims are processed in a timely, efficient, and compassionate manner, and with a goal of processing claims within 90 days of receiving all necessary information,'' Evan Peterson said in an e-mailed statement.

Congressional advocates of the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefit have said it was intended to presume that the first responder's heart attack or stroke was caused by work in the line of duty, citing a Harvard School of Public Health study. That study showed firefighters have a higher risk of death from a heart attack than the general population.

Horton said she's fighting for her family, including her 20-year-old son who is a firefighter in Auburn, as well as the other families around the country.

''The law was written for people like my dad,'' she said. ''And he didn't even know about it. He just got on that firetruck and went on that call.''