Fire Fighters Association of Missouri

What is a Line of Duty Death?

This year has been exceptionally busy for our funeral assistance team. As of October 1, we have handled four line of duty deaths in our state, and assisted Iowa with two. This is in addition to the numerous calls to honor our public safety officers who have also died, but not in the line of duty.

We feel it is very important to appropriately honor those who serve. You have seen me write about appropriateness of honors, and insuring we honor in a consistent and appropriate manner. In this article, I want to discuss some of the nuances regarding line of duty deaths. While it may seem very simple, it truly is a very difficult topic, and one that is greatly misunderstood.

Ask yourself: “What is a Line of Duty Death?” We routinely get calls asking, “Is this line of duty?” When this question is posed, we truly must answer a series of individual question to define an answer.

  • Do the circumstances surrounding the death meet the definition of line of duty by the Federal Public Safety Officer Benefits process?
  • Do the circumstances surrounding the death meet the definition of the State of Missouri Line of Duty Death Benefit process?
  • Do the circumstances surrounding the death meet the criteria for inclusion at the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Emmitsburg, MD?
  • Do the circumstances surrounding the death meet the criteria for inclusion on the Ultimate Sacrifice Wall, at the State of Missouri Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Kingdom City?
  • Do the circumstance surrounding the death meet the criteria for inclusion at the International Association of Fire Fighters Memorial in Colorado Springs, CO?
  • Do the circumstances surrounding the death meet the criteria of any other entity that provide aid or assistance to families of fallen public safety officers?

We must answer each of these questions independently, because each of these organizations have their own guidelines that defines a Line of Duty Death. There is not a common or universal definition that is used by any of these groups.

Some cases are very obvious, and will meet the criteria for each entity, but many are not. This past September, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Symposium in Phoenix, AZ, which highlighted the horrors of this disease within the firefighting community. Cancer is one of those “not-so-obvious” cases.

There are wide variances when applying the circumstances of a cancer related death, against each of the questions that must be individually asked.

For the Federal Public Safety Officer benefits, their law uses terminology such as “direct and proximate result.” In essence, you must be able to draw a direct parallel to the call the cancer was contracted from. Obviously, this is nearly impossible without a sentinel event such as the events of 9/11 in New York City.

The State of Missouri has presumptive cancer laws that apply to paid firefighters. There are criteria within those laws that presume certain cancers are duty related as long as the criteria regarding medical physicals are met and that the condition did not result from nor contributed to, by the voluntary use of tobacco. While not common, I do know that there have been successful claims made within our state.

The National Fallen Firefighter Foundation generally recognizes the findings of the Federal Public Safety Officer Benefit program, for cases that are not immediately identifiable, in order to be included at the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial.

The State of Missouri Fallen Firefighter Memorial generally recognizes the findings of the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial, for cases that are not immediately identifiable, in order to be included on the Ultimate Sacrifice Wall.

The International Association of Fire Fighters has been extremely progressive in recognizing occupational cancers. They routinely recognize and honor specific cancer deaths as Line of Duty.

As you can see, cancer cases are extremely  difficult due to the wide variance in how they are handled. But, cancer is not the only outlier. Deaths resulting from heart attack, stroke, vascular rupture, and PTSD may also be handled differently, depending on the reviewing entity.

In prior articles, I have written about the importance of having a funeral protocol in place within your own organization. One of the most important reasons you should do this, is so you make decisions at a time when things are not emotional to guide you through the emotional rollercoaster of a death within your organization. Many times emotion equates to “honoring up”, and providing honors outside of established standards. Another important reason for establishing the protocol is to create equality amongst the honors. How will your organization handle a cancer death? How will it handle it if you do not have paid firefighters, or if some of your firefighters are paid and some are not (remember the Missouri presumptive law pertains to paid firefighters)? How will you handle honors if a segment of your organization is a member of a labor organization (that recognizes certain cancer related deaths as in the line of duty), but another segment of your organization is not?

As you can see, “Is this line of duty?”  can be very difficult to answer. Organizational leaders must educate themselves. Lack of organizational planning in addressing these issues, answering these questions, and implementing fair, equitable, and justifiable funeral protocol before they are needed, can be very destructive to an organization and impactful to the family of your firefighter. If your region or organization would like a class that covers this topic, please let us know.