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Amendment to new law will protect first responders injured on duty

WASHINGTON — Capping a three-year effort by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), President Obama has signed into law legislation authored by Leahy that will remedy coverage gaps in the federal program that provides a crucial safety net for the families of first responders who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.

The measure is Leahy’s most recent effort to close gaps in the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act that have left some first responders without benefits when they are injured or killed in the line of duty. He first introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act in June 2009, naming the bill in honor of the Bennington emergency medical technician who was tragically killed in an ambulance accident.

Leahy had added his bill to the Senate’s version of the annual defense authorization bill. Because it was not also in the House version, he convinced conferees to keep it in the final bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, had approved the bill in 2010, but further action on the legislation had stalled due to a single Republican senator’s objection. The President signed the defense bill, with the Dale Long Act included, on Wednesday.

The PSOB program was launched more than three decades ago to provide assistance to the surviving families of police, firefighters and medics who died 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 will extend the PSOB program to cover private, nonprofit emergency medical services volunteers and personnel. In Vermont alone Leahy’s bill will qualify an estimated 1,200 EMS personnel for the PSOB program.

The measure also includes provisions to lessen the length of a currently unwieldy appeals process for claimants, clarify the list of eligible survivor beneficiaries, and make those who have been catastrophically injured eligible for peer support and counseling programs. It removes artificial distinctions under current law to include vascular ruptures in the types of injuries that would make a public safety officer’s survivors eligible for benefits.

Leahy credited the efforts of several public safety organizations for their help in building support for his bill, including the American Ambulance Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Firefighters.

“From Bennington, Vt., to Newtown, Conn., first responders are flesh-and-blood lifelines to all of us," Leahy said. "When tragedy strikes, they lay their lives on the line with a sense of duty, with skill and with selflessness.  All first responders should be treated as professionals, whether paid, volunteer, municipal or private nonprofits. We count on them, and they need to be able to count on us. This is their law."

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