Firefighters' Families Awarded Death Benefits

Updated: 11-23-2007 09:48:27 AM

Associated Press Writer


Since her firefighter husband died of a heart attack nearly four years ago after responding to an emergency, Kathleen Shea hasn't received a penny in death benefits - despite a federal law that indicated she was entitled to them.

She learned this week that the Department of Justice reversed a previous denial and determined she was entitled to benefits under the 2003 Hometown Heroes Law. The law extends federal benefits to the survivors of firefighters, police officers and other first responders killed by heart attacks or strokes while on duty.

The Justice Department denied benefits to Shea and dozens of other families around the country, arguing that they were ineligible because their relatives died during "routine" activities.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who sponsored the Hometown Heroes legislation, helped Shea and other families appeal the decisions, saying that an emergency response was "inherently non-routine."

Now that the Justice Department has reversed several of the denials, family members of other first responders are less likely to face the same struggle Shea did.

Shea said she was surprised by the department's "lack of understanding of what actually goes on when the fire horn goes off, and the position it puts everyone in - including the families."

"I'm glad I fought the fight, I am glad it was reversed," she said. "I hope no one else will have to go through what I've gone through."

So far, four out of four appeals have resulted in benefits for families. Nearly 40 more families still have to go through the appeal process.

"To them it's far more than the dollars," Schumer said in a phone interview. "It's just being remembered and not being treated poorly after their husbands or their fathers made the ultimate sacrifice."

Elsmere Fire Chief Kevin Shea died when his department responded to a smell of smoke in a nursing home while the residents were being evacuated from the building.

Eventually determining that the building was safe, Shea returned to the firehouse momentarily and suffered a heart attack in his car, in front of the station. Less than 40 minutes had passed since the initial call.

Schumer took part in a Senate Judiciary Hearing in October, pushing the Justice Department to reverse its decision and grant the Shea family benefits.

The department issued a directive that clarifies which activities are considered "non-routine." They include responding to an emergency call.

Shea said she had not learned how much of a benefit she and her daughter would receive, or when she could expect it.

"I'd rather have him, but obviously that's not going to change," she said. "Bottom line, I'm very happy for future families, and God forbid there should be a whole lot of future families."

About 100 firefighters die in the line of duty each year.

Harvard University researchers found that the risk of death from heart disease was highest during active firefighting - up to 100 times greater than the risk of dying during administrative work - though firefighting made up no more than 5 percent of a firefighters' time. Increased risk of death was also found for other emergency duties such as responding to a call and returning from the scene of a fire.

The study, published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine, doesn't address whether firefighters have an overall higher risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.

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