Schumer: With Chief Falkouski's Widow Testifying Before Senate Judiciary Committee, Doj Announces New Protocol And A Review Of All Outstanding Cases

Despite Being Entitled to Federal Death Benefits under 2003 Hometown Heroes Law, Falkouski Family has been Denied Benefits by the Department of JusticeDOJ has inexplicably claimed that Chief Falkouski's Response to an Emergency was "Routine", Thereby Making His Family Ineligible for BenefitsBefore Schumer and Falkouski, DOJ Announces that Responding to a Fire is "presumptively non-routine" and will Apply Interpretation to all Claims

Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer announced that during a Senate Judiciary Hearing which featured testimony given by Susan Falkouski, the widow of the fallen Rensselaer City Assistant Fire Chief Mike Falkouski, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had issued a new directive defining what is considered a nonroutine activity.  Included in this new directive is the statement that "all responses to emergency call will be considered presumptively nonroutine." Falkouski's family to date has inexplicably been blocked by the DOJ from receiving the federal death benefits they are entitled to under the Hometown Heroes law. 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.


However, even though Mike Falkouski, along with Elsmere Fire Chief Kevin Shea, died from such conditions while on duty, the Justice Department earlier this year denied federal death benefits for both their families because it claimed that the firefighters' deaths occurred during socalled "routine" activity. Schumer, however, has argued that 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. Falkouski and Shea's families are currently awaiting decisions on their appeals.


Today, following testimony from Mrs. Falkouski who sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee at Schumer's invitation, the DOJ announced that it was receptive to the concerns that were raised, and has released a directive that further clarifies which activities are considered "nonroutine."  Among these activities is responding to an emergency call.  The DOJ also said it was gather information on outstanding cases so it could better review them.


Schumer hailed today's developments as a major break through and hoped it would lead to the Falkouski and Shea families receiving their benefits in the near future.


"Despite wrongfully misinterpreting the 2003 Hometown Heroes law for months, it seems the Department of Justice has finally seen the light and agrees with us that responding to an emergency, working at the scene, and the immediate period afterward is inherently nonroutine and places the human body under irregularly high stress levels," said Senator Schumer. "Today's development is a huge step forward towards getting the families of Falkouski and Shea the benefits they're entitled to."


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." The letter also said that the below zero weather, high winds and 20 inches of snow had no significance.


Before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Mrs. Falkouski stated, "I must tell you. I am not only offended, but angry at this letter. I feel that the Department of Justice trivialized my husband's service. And, it seems to me it was written by someone who has no idea of what it's like to respond to an emergency. In fact, I think it is inherently nonroutine for any human being to race towards a dangerous situation at a moment's notice. The firefighters I have spoken to agree."


Following comments made by Falkouski and Schumer, Domingo Herraiz, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, further described his prepared testimony, which stated, "Some people have expressed concern regarding our reading of the Hometown Heroes Act term 'nonroutine.' Some have been concerned that we may have defined this term too narrowly. While we have mentioned the term "nonroutine" in our written determinations, todate no claim has been denied simply because we deemed the activity routine. However, to ensure future consistency in how we consider this term, 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."


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.


In April, Schumer sent a letter to Herraiz 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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


Both the Falkouski and Shea families appealed their denial of benefits and had hearings with PSOB officers in early September.  They both are awaiting word on the decision.

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