Why death "in line of duty" matters: $333,604.68

September 26, 2014




Since 1976, the federal government has provided what is, in effect, free life insurance policies for public safety workers. The program is described as follows on the website of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF):

The Public Safety Officers Benefits Act, (42 USC 3796, Public Law 94-430) became law on September 29, 1976. The legislation provided for a $50,000 death benefit for fire fighters (paid and volunteer) and law enforcement officers that died in the line-of-duty (emergency or non-emergency) from a traumatic injury. On December 15, 2003 the Act was amended to cover deaths from heart attack and stroke occurring in the line-of-duty. The Act does not cover deaths resulting from occupational illness or pulmonary disease unless a traumatic injury is a substantial factor to the death.


On November 11, 1988, the benefit was increased from $50,000.00 to $100,000.00 and made retroactive to June 1, 1988. The dependency test for parent(s) was eliminated. Additionally, it provided that on October 1, 1988 and every year thereafter, the benefit would be increased to reflect any increase in the consumer price index. On October 26, 2001, as part of the Patriot Act of 2001, the benefit was increased to $250,000 and made retroactive to January 1, 2001.

The inflation-adjusted award amount is currently $333,604.68.


I became interested when I read that Governor Snyder ordered flags lowered for a firefighter who he said died "in the line of duty," and my research revealed that he died at home of a heart attack 3 hours after assisting in an ambulance run. The December 15, 2003 amendment to the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act that extended coverage to heart attacks and strokes (the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act) specified that the heart attack or stroke must have occurred within 24 hours of non-routine stressful or strenuous activity.


I wonder why the federal government is involved. For one thing, it is picking favorites. There are a lot of dangerous occupations and the feds don't provide life insurance for those workers. Ordinarily, an individual is responsible for insuring himself, and for good reason: some need it and some don't. If you don't have family who is dependent on your earnings, there is no need for life insurance. Federally-funded life insurance for public safety workers who have no dependents is a waste of taxpayer money. The Michigan firefighter for whom flags were lowered on September 15 was not married and had no children. His parents will receive the $333,604.68.


Since he cannot be sure he will not die from something other than a duty-related activity, the responsible public safety worker with dependents is going to get his own life insurance anyway. And most survivors will get benefits through the deceased's employer. There is a duty death benefit for Lansing's police and firefighters that pays

86% of regular retirement benefit to widow, but not less than 1/3 of final average compensation. Each unmarried child under age 21 receives an equal share of final compensation. (source)

The "regular retirement benefit" is calculated by multiplying years of service times final average compensation times 3.2%. "Final average compensation" is average annual earnings for the last 2 years. For example, the spouse of a firefighter with 5 years of service and $70,000 FAC would get an annual payment of $23,333 (5 x $70,000 x .032 x .86 = $9,632; $70,000/3 = $23,333). The children would split $17,500 ($70,000/4).


There is a death benefit for survivors of U.S. military service members who die while on active duty. This makes sense, since - unlike the workers covered by the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act - the federal government is their employer. Families get an immediate $100,000 "gratuity" payment, not much compared to the $333,604.68 that goes to families of public safety workers. Service members also carry life insurance that pays $400,000 unless they opt for a lesser amount, but they have to pay for it. Premiums of $29 per month for the maximum $400,000 coverage are deducted from military pay.


Send comments to stevenrharry@gmail.com.


Previous stories: