NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Legislation first introduced after the death of a local EMT that would extend benefits to the families of EMTs killed in the line-of-duty passed the U.S. House Wednesday, but remains blocked in the Senate by a single senator.
The Public Safety Officers Benefit program was created by Congress more than 30 years ago to provide help to the surviving families of police, firefighters and medics who die or become disabled in the line of duty. Under current law, however, the PSOB program applies only to emergency personnel employed by federal, state or local government agencies.
The legislation passed by the House on Wednesday was originally drafted by Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It calls for providing the same federal benefits to the surviving families of paramedics and emergency medical technicians killed or disabled in the line of duty who work or volunteer for nonprofit ambulance services.
Leahy sought the change to the law after the death of Dale Long, a paramedic with the Bennington Rescue Squad, a nonprofit organization, in June 2009. Long was driving an ambulance on a call when it went off the road and struck a tree. Long's family was not eligible for the same benefits that a municipal- or state-employed EMT would have received.
"We have been working to address this gap in the federal program for some time, and the loss of Dale Long reminded everyone that first responders of many uniforms literally put their lives at risk every day," Leahy said. "These brave emergency professionals never let their communities down when a call comes in, and no one asks the lifesavers at an emergency scene whether they work for the federal government, a state government, a local government, or a nonprofit agency. This provision will erase that unnecessary distinction from the PSOB program."
Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, a sponsor of the House bill, said Long's memory was a force behind passage in a time of rare bipartisanship in Congress.
"The memory of Dale Long was quite relevant here," Welch said. "Definitely, Dale Long was the inspiration."
The clear need for volunteer and nonprofit first responders was also a factor in find rare bipartisanship, according to Welch. "We're increasingly dependent on volunteers in our local communities to do these essential services. Paramedics and EMTs are oftentimes the first responders to people we represent," Welch said. "It was a welcome area of common ground that allowed us to get something that needs to be done finally done."
If it also passes the Senate, the change would qualify about 1,200 additional Vermont EMS personnel under the PSOB program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice.
But the bill continues to be stymied in the Senate by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. Leahy spokesman David Carle said Leahy has attempted to pass the legislation several times, but Coburn has placed holds or blocked the bill in some way each time.
Coburn's consistent opposition to the program has drawn strongly worded criticism from the law enforcement and paramedic communities. Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, issued a blistering statement earlier this month after Coburn called for repealing the PSOB program in a letter to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
"Senator Coburn is an implacable foe of law enforcement," Canterbury said. "He has voted against law enforcement and public safety at every opportunity, not just on funding issues, but on issues related to officer safety and the efficient delivery of emergency services. He is actively anti-law enforcement and his efforts are really undermining public safety."
Coburn wrote in his letter that he has "serious federalism concerns" with the program because it provides federal benefits to state and local employees. Coburn said Congress should "terminate" the PSOB program because it is "not the responsibility of the federal government."
"Disgust. That is really the only way to describe my reaction," Canterbury said in his statement. "A family that loses a loved one in the line of duty should just be left adrift, their sacrifice ignored because their loved one was a local firefighter or state trooper and not a federal agent?"
Carle said Leahy is looking to attach his Senate bill, also sponsored by independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to new legislation.