Three-and-a-half years after a female first responder with the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department died in the line-of-duty while participating in firefighter training, her family will finally receive the federal Public Safety Officers' Benefit.
After the U.S. Department of Justice's (DoJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance twice denied the federal benefits claim filed by fire officials and the family over the November 9, 2008 line-of-duty death, Dale City Fire Chief Charles Hool reached out for help from Congressman Gerry Connolly in late 2011 in a last ditch effort to make a final appeal on behalf of the family of the late Cecilia Turnbough. Working in concert with the family and Dale City fire officials, Connolly wrote to the DoJ seeking a reversal of the death benefit denial through a "director's review."
"I would like you to remain mindful of Firefighter/EMT Turnbough's many years as a public safety officer and her desire to help her community as you review this case," Connolly wrote in his November 2011 letter. "To fail to provide her husband and her children with the federal benefit would be a tragedy for this family on top of the unspeakable tragedy of losing a wife and a mother."
Turnbough was an eight-year veteran of the Dale City department where she served the community as an emergency medical technician. She died of a heart attack on duty as she was completing strenuous mandatory firefighter training, crawling through a maze while wearing full protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus. She left behind her husband and three children, who applied for the federal and state public safety death benefits with the assistance of the department. Nearly two years later in August 2010, the family was notified that their claim for federal benefits was denied. First responder Turnbough's family immediately appealed the decision, but her husband, Christopher Turnbough, received word from DoJ in September 2011 that the appeal also was denied.
At that point, Chief Hool and the family reached out to Congressman Connolly in a last effort to secure the benefit. Collaborating with Chief Hool, Connolly sought the advice of other fire service experts, wrote to the BJA director concerning the final review of the denial, and monitored the agency's progress on the final appeal. In January 2012, Connolly made a personal appeal to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to "personally review" the claim. Connolly told Holder in his letter that the denial of the Turnbough claim "sets a dangerous precedent that could hinder the families of other fallen public safety personnel from receiving appropriate benefits in the future." Connolly also cited a similar case in 2007 involving a female Baltimore City fire fighter who died during a training exercise. Her family's claim was also denied, but ultimately reversed when Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland intervened.
Late last month, the Turnbough family received notification that the DoJ has approved their claim for federal Public Safety Officers' Benefits. "I applaud the Department of Justice for its willingness to take another look at this tragedy, review the new evidence provided, and reverse its previous denials of the Turnbough PSOB claim," Connolly said. "This is an example of how local, state, and federal officials worked together to resolve a issue that had a direct impact on the family of a fallen first responder and ensure a positive precedent on how death benefits for similar first responder, firefighter, and law enforcement line-of-duty deaths will be handled in the future."
The case hinged on the definition of a "firefighter," which was also the grounds for the original denial of state death benefits for the Turnbough family. The state issue was resolved in November 2010 when a Virginia Circuit court ruled that Firefighter/EMT Turnbough met the definition of a firefighter under Virginia law. Leading up to the court case, Prince William County Fire Chief McGee, Dale City Fire Chief Hool, and Prince William County Supervisor John Jenkins were integral in helping the Turnbough family navigate the line of duty death benefits process at the state level. Their efforts were successful and the state benefit was awarded to the family.
"The Turnbough family, Fire Chiefs McGee and Hool, and PWC Supervisor Jenkins deserve credit for the dogged determination to make sure this family was made whole after the loss of their loved one. They provided a public service to the family, to the community, and to the families of first responders who make the ultimate sacrifice in the future," Connolly said.
"After several years and multiple denials, the Turnbough Family can close this long and painful chapter of their lives with just compensation for their tragic loss," Connolly said. "Firefighter/EMT Cecilia Turnbough will be remembered as a dedicated mother, wife, and first responder who served her community as a emergency medical technician and gave her life as she furthered her training to serve as a firefighter."
Summary of the federal PSOB Law
The Public Safety Officers Benefits Act, (42 USC 3796, Public Law 94-430) became law on September 29, 1976. The legislation provided for a death benefit for fire fighters (paid and volunteer) and law enforcement officers that died in the line-of-duty (emergency or non-emergency) from a traumatic injury. On December 15, 2003 the Act was amended to cover deaths from heart attack and stroke occurring in the line-of-duty.
On October 15, 1986 public sector EMS personnel were amended into the coverage of the Act.
On August 10, 2006 new regulations for administration of all PSOB benefits were issued that incorporated all prior amendments to the original regulations and added the provisions of the Hometown Heroes Act. New definitions included the term ""member of a rescue squad or ambulance crew'', which is now defined as ""an officially recognized or designated public employee member of a rescue squad or ambulance crew.''
The Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003 (HHA) amends the PSOB Act and was signed into Law on December 15, 2003. If a public safety officer dies as a direct and proximate result of a heart attack or stroke, that officer shall be presumed to have died as the direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty unless such presumption is not overcome by competent medical evidence to the contrary. The law requires that the officer, while on duty engaged in a situation, and such engagement involved non-routine stressful or strenuous physical law enforcement, fire suppression, rescue, hazardous material response, emergency medical services, prison security, disaster relief, or other emergency response activity or participated in a training exercise, and such participation involved non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activity. Any claim for non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activities will be excluded if such actions are of a clerical, administrative, or non-manual nature.