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Duty Calls

January 5, 2011

Last week President Obama signed into law a bill extending benefits to certain 9/11 attack responders presumed to have incurred illnesses as a result of their service. Much of the media coverage accompanying this legislation focused on efforts to delay or prevent its passage by Congress, not the legitimacy of the claims themselves.

After 9/11, politicians were all too happy to be seen standing alongside public safety officers extending gratitude for their service. It would be easy but incorrect to assume that the benevolence they displayed then by increasing the lump sum benefit for public safety officers’ survivors was the result of enlightenment much less an accumulation of factual evidence that such awards were scientifically or fiscally justified.

Benefits for public safety officers who become disabled due to injuries or illnesses incurred in the line of duty have usually been accompanied by controversy and disagreement. The original Public Safety Officer Benefit Act became law in 1976. The inclusion of firefighters alongside police officers was seen by many as an afterthought in the interests of comity if not some semblance of parity among the professions. The Act’s passage, according to some, marked an effort to make these risky professions more attractive at a time when public service was held in particularly low esteem. You may be saying to yourself right now that at least some things have changed since then.

Most career firefighters and police officers, if not other public safety officers and their non-uniformed and volunteer colleagues, are paid comparatively attractive salaries and enjoy much better benefits and job security than many private sector workers with similar levels of skill and experience. Despite that advantage, many are now experiencing many of the same uncertainties confronting the rest of the workforce.

It should come as no surprise that in the midst of the current economic and fiscal crises that some citizens and interest groups see survivor benefits as simply another perk lavished upon public employees that remains well beyond their reach. This is particularly true of those who lack employment or any prospect of employment in the near term.

This skepticism is understandable enough but still overlooks another important consideration. The justifications for these benefits lacks much if any sound scientific or economic basis. This is particularly true in the case of my own profession as it relates to qualifying victims of cardiovascular ailments or cancer for benefits. The decisions to recognize these ailments as qualifying conditions for survivor benefits is more representative of the growing political influence of firefighters than recognition the dangers associated with their occupation.

That said, the value of extending such benefits has become very clear and personal for me this week as my own agency has prepared for a memorial service for a fallen comrade who succumbed to malignant melanoma on December 30 leaving behond a young wife and two sons.

Matt Durham (pictured above) was a firefighter for 15 years. During that time he had accumulated an exemplary service record. His personnel file was chock full of letters of appreciation and commendation from colleagues and citizens and glowing performance appraisals from supervisors. He routinely went the extra mile serving on several specialist teams, including the regional hazardous materials team and the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Besides being a skilled emergency services professional, Matt was a remarkable photojournalist whose work was widely published and heralded by colleagues in California and Washington.

When I worked on the initial efforts to develop a firefighter autopsy protocol as a federal contractor in the early 1990s, firefighters argued that they were at higher risk than others of contracting cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers and felt certain that higher incidence was related to on-the-job exposures and stress. Few studies over the years have borne out these concerns or provided consistent much less solid evidence to support them. Nevertheless a growing list of states recognize at least some cancers as job-related for firefighters and amendments to the Public Safety Officer Benefits Act after 9/11 expanded compensation and added coverage for deaths due to certain cardiovascular ailments.

The value of these provisions is not so much the recognition they provide fallen firefighters or the financial security they afford bereaved families, although these are both obviously significant. Rather the presumption that their service led to the deaths of firefighters in such cases advances the cause of managing these exposures in meaningful ways by promoting wellness and fitness while honoring the ideals of service and sacrifice for their own sake.

Before the recognition of these ailments, most qualifying firefighters’ deaths resulted from catastrophic injuries sustained during firefighting and rescue operations or training for such operations. Unfortunately, an unsettling proportion of these deaths resulted from serious lapses in judgment or failures of operational discipline and oversight, often on the part of the deceased members themselves.

Recognizing the deaths of colleagues afflicted by cancer and cardiovascular diseases has had two significant positive effects on the profession: 1) it has encouraged firefighters to take more responsibility for their own wellness and fitness rather than chalking up their fate to the dangers and rigors of their jobs, and 2) it has recognized that some catastrophic risks, whether job-related or not, are simply beyond the control of individuals or organizations, especially when we know so little about how they develop in the first place.

For me, these benefits would be enough if that’s all they accomplished. But I have seen something else significant this week that further inclines me to think these benefits are not only justified but should be extended to most if not all workers as a matter of public policy.

A growing body of evidence suggests that people need three things in order to thrive: 1) the ability to feel they make a difference bigger than themselves, 2) the ability to share their successes with others who mean something to them, and 3) the ability to receive meaningful recognition (not necessarily reward) for their efforts, which often involves a combination of the first two elements by allowing them to form meaningful relationships with others through the shared experience of hard work and sometimes personal sacrifice.

This week, my colleagues and I have seen this dynamic at work as we come together to recognize Matt Durham, support his family and share our recollections of a valued friend and colleague. In the absence of financial hardships to the family, we have seen people step up in ways that impress and inspire others, more often than not without any expectation of compensation or recognition for themselves. If we can in some small way make this experience real for others, we will all feel we have done something truly special not just for Matt but as a legacy to his and others’ service to our communities.


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