11.21.07

Schumer Announces DOJ Approves Death Benefits For Capital Region Resident Kathleen Shea - Hails It As Huge Step To Ensure Family Members Of Fallen Firefighters Across The Nation Receive Just Compensation

Despite Being Entitled to Federal Death Benefits Under 2003 Hometown Heroes Law, Shea Family was Denied Benefits by the Department of JusticeDOJ had Inexplicably Claimed that Chief Shea , and Scores of Other Families Across the Nation, were Ineligible for Benefits Because Response to an Emergency was "Routine"After Schumer Argued that Responding to a Fire is "Inherently Non-Routine," DOJ has Promptly Reversed Original Denials on Appeal, Awarding Benefits to Four Families Ac

Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer announced that Kathleen Shea, the widow of the fallen Elsmere Fire Chief Kevin Shea, will receive death benefits from the Department of Justice (DOJ). Death benefits for the Shea family had been inexplicably blocked by the DOJ after the agency claimed that Chief Shea's death occurred during socalled "routine" activity, and therefore his family was ineligible for receiving the federal death benefits under the Hometown Heroes law.

But in October, Schumer took part in a Senate Judiciary Hearing, pushing the DOJ to reverse its decision and to grant the Shea family benefits. Schumer argued that responding to a fire is "inherently nonroutine" and therefore Shea's family, along with other families of fallen firefighters across the nation, should be granted death benefits.

Schumer today hailed the news and said it was a huge step forward in ensuring that the families of fallen firefighters across New York State and the entire nation receive the death benefits they're entitled to. In the wake of Schumer 's arguments, the DOJ has promptly reversed its decisions on four cases, awarding benefits to the respected families.

DOJ's reversal on Shea's case comes only two weeks after the Justice Department reversed its original decision on another Capital Region case involving death benefits for the family of Assistant Chief Michael Falkouski of Rensselaer, who died while responding to a fire.

"This Thanksgiving the Shea family can take solace in the fact that it will finally receive the death benefits it is entitled to due to the heroic efforts of a fallen family member," said Senator Schumer. "In recent weeks, we've seen the DOJ acknowledge how it wrongfully, and tragically, misinterpreted the 2003 Hometown Heroes law, misconstruing a law that was designed solely to assist the family members of brave heroes who died in the line of duty. I'm optimistic that families of fallen firefighters across New York State and the entire nation will now receive the benefits they're entitled due to the heroic efforts of fallen family members."

Schumer is an original sponsor of the 2003 law which extends federal benefits to the survivors of career and volunteer firefighters, police officers and other first responders killed by heart attacks or strokes while on duty. Even though Shea died from such conditions while on duty, the Justice Department earlier this year denied federal death benefits for his family because it claimed that the firefighters' deaths occurred during socalled "routine" activity.

However, Schumer has argued that responding to an emergency, working at the scene of a fire, and the immediate period afterward is inherently nonroutine and places the human body under irregularly high stress levels.

In April, Schumer sent a letter to Domingo Herraiz, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and pointed to the 2003 law and argued responding to a fire or emergency scene - from beginning to end - is an inherently nonroutine activity as that term was intended by Congress, and, thus, any stroke or heart attack that occurred while responding would make the families eligible for benefits.

In May, Schumer's office met with DOJ officials in Schumer's DC office. Schumer said the initial meeting was an important first step toward reforming the process and securing benefits for these families. "The Justice Department needs to carefully reexamine their interpretation of the law and their approach to deciding these claims, which is currently at odds with Congress' intent when we passed this law.

In October, Schumer invited Susan Falkouski, the widow of Assistant Chief Michael Falkouski of Rensselaer, NY, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and both argued that responding to a fire is "inherently nonroutine." Mrs. Falkouski testified that in a letter she received in March from the DOJ, the agency stated that "the act of responding at any hour of the day or night to the scene of a fire event is a routine engagement."

Prior to the Judiciary Committee hearing, the DOJ released a directive that further clarified which activities are considered "nonroutine." Among these activities is responding to an emergency call. Domingo Herraiz, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, testified that, "I have recently provided binding direction to my staff regarding application of this term. . . this direction makes clear that all responses to emergency calls will be considered presumptively nonroutine."

Since the October hearing, the DOJ has assessed four cases under the Hometown Heroes Act on appeal and reversed their initial denials in all four cases.

Schumer today hailed the reversal in the Shea and Falkouski cases as a major breakthrough in ensuring the families of firefighters across New York State and the nation receive the death benefits they're entitled to.

Chief Shea's family has also been denied benefits by the DOJ. Chief Shea died when the Elsmere Fire Department responded to an odor of smoke in the Good Samaritan Nursing Home, while the infirmed residents were being evacuated from the building by staff. Though the odor was not due to a serious fire, Chief Shea had no way of knowing that, and responded thinking that he was facing a potential mass casualty incident.

Determining that the building was safe, Chief Shea returned to the firehouse momentarily and suffered a heart attack in his car, in front of the station. It was less than forty minutes between the initial call and when Chief Shea was stricken.

Chief Falkouski suffered a severe stroke after responding to a fire scene during inclement weather. He furiously cleared ten inches of snow off his car and driveway so he could respond to the crisis. As he was doing so, the first arriving companies reported a heavy fire condition, multiple explosions, and a severely burned civilian. Chief Falkouski drove through the bad weather conditions as quickly as he could, arrived at the scene, got out of his car, and in the process of putting on his firefighting gear, suffered a stroke. He died later that day.

Schumer is an original sponsor of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003 (S.459), introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, which closed a loophole that prevented families of firefighters and police officers who died in line duty from a heart attack or stroke from collecting federal bereavement benefits. The legislation was signed into law on December 15, 2003 and ensured that the surviving families of first responders, who died of heart attacks or strokes in the line of duty, or within 24 hours of a triggering incident while on duty, would be eligible to receive financial assistance, regardless of whether a traumatic injury is present.

A study conducted by Harvard University found firefighters face a much higher risk of death from heart attack when battling a blaze - up to 100 times the normal rate - and are more likely to be struck even when they're doing lessstrenuous tasks. Looking at firefighter heart attack deaths nationwide over a decade, the researchers found that the risk of heart attack is highest when firefighters are working at a fire scene - with increased odds ranging from 10 to 100 times the normal risk of heart attack.

Although firefighters spend only 1 to 5 percent of their time putting out fires, 32 percent of firefighter deaths from heart attacks occur at fire scenes, the study found. Just as striking, the study found that 40% of firefighter heart attack deaths come while responding to, or returning from, an emergency.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that among the approximately 1.1 million firefighters in the United States (of whom about 70% are volunteers and 30% are paid career personnel), about 100 die each year in the line of duty. Nearly half of the deaths that occur while firefighters are on duty are related to cardiovascular events. The study clearly stated that firefighters face an increased risk of illness and death due to cardiovascular disease during periods of intense physical and even psychological stress at work.

During his visit to Albany on April 10, Schumer was joined by the families of both the late Chief Kevin Shea of Elsmere and Asst Chief Michael Falkouski of Rensselaer who have had their benefit applications denied. Schumer was also joined by Tom LaBelle of the NYS Assn of Fire Chiefs, David Quinn of the Fireman's Assn of the State of NY, representatives of the NYS Professional Firefighters Assn, and numerous local firefighters.



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