Report: U.S. Slow in Delivering Benefits for Volunteer Firefighters’ Families

July 16, 2007

An Alabama woman’s heartbreak over the death of her firefighter father as he battled a brush fire has been compounded by delays in obtaining federal survivor benefits — a frustration shared by many seeking the aid.

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

His daughter, Pamela Horton, applied for benefits from the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit fund signed by President Bush in 2003. 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, The Birmingham News reported.

So far, only seven applications have been approved, 47 denied and 199 are pending, according to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

At a news conference last week in Washington, U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said, “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.”

A Justice Department spokesman said 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,” spokesman Evan Peterson said in an e-mailed statement.

Horton said she has 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.

But she said officials with the Bureau of Justice Assistance always want more — the latest request is for her father’s medical history.

She said he didn’t have one.

“My daddy was old school. He didn’t go to the hospital when he stumped his toe,” Horton told The Birmingham News “I can’t give you something that ain’t there.”

Horton, also a volunteer firefighter, 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.”


Information from: The Birmingham News

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