Benefits for firefightersí families could take months

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Salisbury Post
The deaths of 343 firefighters in the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, resulted in a significant hike in federal and state benefits available to the families of fallen firefighters.
The changes will provide significant support for the families of two Salisbury firefighters killed in the March 7 Salisbury Millwork fire. But theyíll probably have to wait months to see those benefits.
The families or beneficiaries of fallen firefighters, career or volunteer, now receive more than $303,000 from the Federal Public Safety Officers Death Benefit program, according to Paul F. Miller, executive director of the N.C. State Firemenís Association. It also applies to law enforcement officers.
Although the federal benefit is the largest, other state benefits, insurance and workmenís compensation also bolster the total benefits going to families of public safety officers killed in the line of duty.
The total package can range between $400,000 and $600,000.
ěIt used to be a real struggle for families,î Miller said. ěWhat we do canít replace the loved one, but it gives us some comfort that weíre not leaving somebody out there without any coverage or benefits.î
Miller and the State Firemenís Association stand ready to assist the families of Justin Monroe, 19, and Victor Isler, 40, the firefighters who died. Monroe, who was part-time with Salisbury, was also a volunteer with the Millerís Ferry and Spencer departments.
Miller, a firefighter for 30 years who also served as a city councilman and county commissioner in Green County, has headed the firefighters association for 18 years. Heís seen families of fallen firefighters struggle to deal with the loss and stay afloat financially. The financial situation has improved greatly.
ěThey wonít be rich. We can get them by. They wonít starve,î Miller said. ěWith wise investments, managed well, theyíll probably live comfortably.î
But Miller stressed that while there is money coming in the pipeline, families can face severe financial hardship for the first few months.
Thatís why fire departments and communities often ask for contributions to help families.
The city of Salisbury has established a fund to aid the Monroe and Isler families at Bank of North Carolina branches in Harrisburg and Salisbury.
ěShort term, families donít see the big benefits,î Miller said. ěIn the cases of the federal program, the benefits are not paid out for a minimum of one year.î
In some cases where a heart attack or a vehicle accident is involved, the payout has been delayed up to three years.
For Miller, one of the best benefits is the free college education for children of fallen firefighters. The state waives all tuition, and the Firemenís Association covers room, board and other expenses.
ěItís the greatest thing we do,î Miller said.
Islerís two children will be eligible for the educational benefits.
Most of the benefits are available to families of firefighters killed battling fires, as well as those responding to a fire in a truck or a personal vehicle.
ěThey do not have to be in an actual fire emergency. They could be in a training capacity,î Miller said.
The No. 1 killer of firefighters is heart attacks, he noted. Automobile accidents rank second. Fire ranks third.
Hereís a summary of benefits as outlined by Miller:
Federal Public Safety Officers law: Currently $303,000, this benefit adjusts annually for the cost of living. The Program started in the 1970s with a $50,000 benefit, was doubled during President Ronald Reaganís administration and increased by $100,000 or more after the World Trade Center tragedy.
The benefit is free of federal taxes.
State line-of-duty benefit: Previously $25,000, the benefit doubled after 9/11 and is free of state taxes.
N.C. Firemenís Association: $45,000 for accidental deaths. Firefighters or departments across the state pay $17 a year for the insurance.
Education benefit: Tuition is waived at any North Carolina state-supported college, either four-year or community college.
The state began waiving tuition in 1997. The association has been providing education assistance for 30 years.
For more information on the Firemenís Association or the benefits, check the web site www.ncsfa.com.
In addition to the package of federal, state and Firemenís Association benefits, the family of any firefighter who dies on the job will receive workmenís compensation through the N.C. Industrial Commission, a process that can take three to six months.
For a full-time employee, it equates to two-thirds of 400 weeks of the employeeís gross pay. Miller estimated that benefit could mean $150,000 to $200,000 for a full-time firefighter.
Workmenís compensation for a part-time firefighter would be substantially less.
Also, municipal and volunteer fire departments may carry additional life insurance.
When a Post reporter asked city officials for information about city benefits for firefighters killed in the line of duty, Karen Wilkinson, spokeswoman for the city of Salisbury, said she consulted with City Attorney Rivers Lawther and then responded:
ěAt this time, the city must consider this a personnel matter, and it is not our policy to share this information with anyone but the beneficiaries.î
John Morrison, president of the Rowan Fire and Rescue Association, said most departments across the county carry additional life insurance beyond the state and federal benefits.
Last year, North Carolina ranked second in the nation in firefighters killed in the line of duty. Most of those deaths came in motor vehicle accidents.
The Firemenís Association is working on a program to encourage firefighters to wear seat belts.
ěOut of the last 17 vehicle deaths, we only had one firefighter who had his seat belt buckled. We wouldnít have saved all 17, but we would have saved some,î Miller said.

Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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