Washington, D.C. — On the heels of a new study showing a strong link between heart attacks and firefighters, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) is urging the Department of Justice to begin awarding benefits under the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act.
The act, first introduced by Etheridge in 2002, was signed into law in December 2003, yet the Department of Justice has not awarded any benefits as of today.
“The U.S. Department of Justice appears to be intentionally misinterpreting the direct, expressed intent of Congress by failing to award any benefits,” said Etheridge. “The Hometown Heroes legislation was intended to create a presumption that death by stroke or heat attack was caused by work in the line of duty. I wrote the law in a very specific way so that survivors would not have to suffer the added burden of bureaucratic hassle.”
The law extends federal survivor benefits to the families of firefighters, police officers and emergency workers who die of heart attack or stroke in the line of duty. It was signed by President Bush on December 15, 2003. The Department released the regulations of the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act in August 2006, nearly three years after the bill became law. Since the law went into effect in September, 2006, the Justice Department has not approved one family to receive benefits under the Hometown Heroes law. There have been 240 applications. 34 were rejected and the others have not received a decision.
A study published by the Harvard School of Public Health on March 22 found that firefighters face a much higher risk of death from a heart attack than the general population – up to 100 times greater when battling a fire. The leading cause of death on duty among U.S. firefighters is coronary heart disease. Although firefighters spend an estimated 1% to 5% of their time on fire suppression, 32% of deaths from heart attack occur during this time. The study also found that firefighters face an increased risk of heart attack during other emergency duties, such as alarm response.
Heart attacks and strokes account for nearly half of firefighter deaths each year. Etheridge’s bill was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Union of Police Associations and the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
This legislation is rooted in North Carolina, born out of a letter written to Etheridge by Mike Williams of Bunnlevel, who worked as the assistant chief of Flat Branch Volunteer Fire Department and in the Office of the State Fire Marshal, and inspired by the death of a North Carolina firefighter.