Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Friday won final congressional approval of his "Dale Long Act," which will remedy coverage gaps in the federal program that provides a crucial safety net for the families of first responders who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.
Leahy noted that millions of Americans in recent days saw the heroism of EMTs working for such local private nonprofit first-responders as Connecticut's Newtown Ambulance Corps. "Their invaluable service during this tragedy shows again why all first responders should be treated as professionals, whether paid, volunteer, municipal or private nonprofits," he said.
Leahy had added his bill to the Senate's version of the annual defense authorization bill. Because it was not also in the House version, he convinced conferees to keep it in the final bill, which cleared the House Thursday and the Senate, Friday afternoon. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, had approved the bill in 2010, but further action on the legislation had stalled due to a single Republican senator's objection.
The measure is Leahy's most recent effort to close gaps in the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Act (PSOB) that have left some first responders without benefits when they are injured or killed in the line of duty. He first introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act in June 2009, naming the bill in honor of the Bennington emergency medical technician (EMT) who was tragically killed in an ambulance accident.
The PSOB program was launched more than three decades ago to provide assistance to the surviving families of police, firefighters and medics who died or are became disabled in the line of duty. Under current law, the PSOB program applies only to public safety officers employed by federal, state and local government entities. The Leahy measure will extend the PSOB program to cover private, nonprofit emergency medical services (EMS) volunteers and personnel. In Vermont alone Leahy's bill will qualify an estimated 1200 EMS personnel for the PSOB program.
The measure also includes provisions to lessen the length of a currently unwieldy appeals process for claimants, clarify the list of eligible survivor beneficiaries, and make those who have been catastrophically injured eligible for peer support and counseling programs. It removes artificial distinctions under current law to include vascular ruptures in the types of injuries that would make a public safety officer's survivors eligible for benefits.
Leahy credited the support of several public safety organizations for their help in building support for his bill, including the American Ambulance Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Firefighters. "As we've seen -- from Bennington, to Newtown -- first responders are flesh-and-blood lifelines to all of us, in every community across the nation. When tragedy or disaster strike, first responders lay their lives on the line through their sense of duty, their skill and their selflessness. We count on them, and they need to be able to count on us. This is their law."
Jim Finger, president of the Vermont Ambulance Association, said: "Thanks to Senator Leahy, over 1200 paramedics and EMTs who are employed by or volunteer for non-profit EMS agencies in Vermont and thousands more across the country will now have the peace of mind that their families will have some financial security in the event of their death in the line of duty. Senator Leahy has long championed efforts for first responders like paramedic Dale Long of Bennington Rescue Squad, who died in the line of duty on June 15, 2009, and after whom Senator Leahy named this bill."