Civilian firefighters battle for benefits

INTRO TEXT

In the day that 31-year-old Martin McNamara died in the basement of a Lancaster apartment blaze, few people on Beacon Hill gave much thought to what happens to a volunteer firefighter’s family if he dies in the line of duty. Yet there were 10,000 other volunteer and “call” firefighters across Massachusetts on that November 2003 day ready to respond – and risk life and limb – if the alarm went off.

On November 2, voters in Lancaster rejected, by a 16-vote margin, a 7 percent, one-time property tax override that would have purchased a $650,000 annuity for McNamara’s widow, Claire, and three children. The public outcry that followed gave new life to legislation – shelved for years at the State House – that would grant death benefits to the survivors of fallen volunteer and call firefighters. The family’s plight has also put a spotlight on volunteer fire departments in small towns throughout Massachusetts, which are finding it more difficult to recruit people willing to put their lives on the line.

One of the long-stalled bills, filed by Rep. Daniel Bosley, a North Adams Democrat, would provide an annual benefit equal to two-thirds of the average salary of a full-time firefighter or police officer “in the local area,” plus $2,600 for each child under 18 (the same payout schedule that would have been used for the McNamara family annuity rejected by Lancaster voters). Under the bill, the payments would be administered by the state’s pension board. Claire McNamara and her children received two one-time death benefits: $100,000 from the state and $267,000 from the federal government, in addition to private donations.

COURTESY OF THE TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
Volunteer firefighters respond to
a town meeting in Lancaster.
Bosley says volunteer firefighters should have certain benefits guaranteed. McNamara, he says, “died in the service of his community.” When it comes to these part-time public safety workers – “call” firefighters generally receive a small, per-call stipend as their only payment – “there is an implicit contract between the town and the employees,” he says. Bosley thinks communities with volunteer fire departments ought to be able to “opt in” to a pension system, spreading the liability among a group of municipalities. But Rep. Robert Koczera of New Bedford, House chairman of the Public Service Committee, says what Bosley is proposing is an open-ended benefit to surviving families without a funding source. Professional firefighters pay into a local contributory retirement system, and if they die in the line of duty, their family receives an annuity equal to two-thirds of their annual wages, plus $312 per child each month. But volunteer firefighters don’t have any employment benefits and don’t have a retirement system to contribute to.

Full-time fire fighters may be softening their stance

Koczera, whose committee referred Bosley’s bill to a study last session, says it would be problematic if Bay State communities – especially smaller towns with limited financial resources – were mandated to pay death benefits for volunteer firefighters when there is no system set up for them to contribute to a retirement fund.

The Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, which represents 12,000 firefighters statewide, has in the past opposed legislation expanding benefits for volunteer and call firefighters. However, that position appears to have softened in light of the Lancaster vote.

“Every call and volunteer firefighter killed in the line of duty, their family should receive a pension for their sacrifice,” says Robert McCarthy, the union president. “They paid the ultimate sacrifice. That community owes that firefighter their due.”

McCarthy thinks it should be up to the city or town where the volunteer firefighter works to fund the pension. “The federal government gives money, the state gives money, and the local communities should,” says McCarthy. “It’s all a partnership.”

But some partners may be more equal than others. Sen. Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat, says it’s clear that full-time firefighters view themselves as a notch above their volunteer counterparts.

“There is a great dichotomy between the professional firefighters’ union and the volunteer call firefighters,” says Brewer, who represents 29 mostly rural communities. “It’s not a secret that the professional firefighters can be a little protective of their turf.”

Brewer has proposed giving the Massachusetts Call/ Volunteer Firefighters Association a seat on the Massachusetts Fire Training Council, but the professional firefighters have objected.

The Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts has endorsed a pension system for volunteer and call firefighters. “A firefighter is a firefighter, whether they’re paid or volunteer,” says Holyoke Fire Chief David LeFond, head of the fire chiefs association. “If he responds to a call, and he doesn’t come out, someone has to be accountable. If Lancaster doesn’t want to be accountable, we should file legislation.”

Volunteer firefighters have also lobbied for disability benefits, saying that an injury during a call could limit their ability to keep a full-time job.

At year’s end, town officials in Lancaster are working with lawmakers and firefighters to determine how to provide for the McNamaras. A group of central Massachusetts legislators has proposed earmarking $650,000 from the state’s pension system for the family. And Gov. Mitt Romney has filed legislation to allow the town to provide health insurance coverage to Claire McNamara and the children. If the measure receives the approval of the Legislature, it would then be decided at a special election in Lancaster.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and volunteer firefighter leaders are worried that it will become more difficult for volunteer departments to survive without either accidental death coverage or disability benefits. Lawrence Holmberg, president of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association, says recruitment of volunteer firefighters is a nationwide problem, reflecting a vanishing way of life.

“The family farms are gone. The local mills are gone. We’re also more of a commuter society,” Holmberg says. “We still have to be on call 24/7, 52 weeks a year.”

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And the rural communities that depend on civilian firefighters have nowhere else to turn.

“Where will we be if we can’t get young people to join the volunteer fire service to protect our people and property?” wonders Brewer. “What is the wife of one of these young men going to say if we’re not going to provide for her if he is killed?”

Erik Arvidson is State House reporter for the Lowell Sun.