NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- A three-year effort by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to extend federal death benefits to first responders employed by nongovernmental agencies came to a successful end Wednesday when legislation named after a local EMT who died in the line of duty was signed into law.
The Democratic senator first sought introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act in June 2009, named after the EMT that was killed that month when the ambulance he was driving crashed. It was finally signed into law on Wednesday and will close coverage gaps in the federal program that provides a safety net for the families of first responders who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty, Leahy said.
Leahy added his bill to the Senate's version of Congress' annual defense authorization bill. It was not included in the House version of the legislation, but Leahy said he was able to convince conferees from the House and Senate to keep the amendment in the final bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Leahy approved the bill in 2010. However, the legislation stalled several times because Senate rules allow a single senator to hold up legislation. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn objected on several occasions but was unable to do so during this last effort.
Leahy said providing equal benefits to all first responders was a top priority for he and his staff so they continued pushing for the legislation despite the setbacks.
"They're all professionals and if you're in need you don't ask when they show up, ‘OK, what kind of a first responder are you?'" Leahy said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I'm first and foremost a Vermonter. I was born and raised there. I know so many EMT people around the state. In my own town in Middlesex, we have to rely on people who are volunteers. I just don't want them to be forgotten. These are people who are willing to go out in the worst possible way, in the worst possible conditions, for us."
Leahy said his continued effort to pass the legislation was noticed by his colleagues. "I had one of the Republican senators say to me, ‘You know Pat, I've got to vote for this. I don't dare look at you if I don't,'" he said.
The more than three-decade old PSOB program provides assistance to surviving family of police, firefighters and medics that die or 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 that is now law will extend the program to cover private, nonprofit emergency medical services volunteers and personnel. The law will qualify an about 1,200 EMS personnel just in Vermont alone.
Leahy said the law also includes provisions to ease an unwieldy appeals process for claimants, clarify the list of eligible survivor beneficiaries and make those who have been catastrophically injured eligible for support and counseling programs.
Several public safety organizations, including the American Ambulance Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Firefighters, offered key support and were instrumental in passing the legislation, according to Leahy.
Jim Finger, president of the Vermont Ambulance Association, praised Leahy's efforts in a statement.
"Thanks to Sen. Leahy, over 1,200 paramedics and EMTs who are employed by or volunteer for nonprofit 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," he said.
Leahy, who was recently sworn in as Senate President Pro Tempore as the seniormost member of the chamber, signed the legislation as part of that office. "I was pretty proud to sign it. My name is going to be on the final bill," he said.