In 2021, 129 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. This number excludes work-related exposures that may lead to death, COVID-19, 9/11-related illnesses, and suicides.
When accounting for all deaths, the number increases almost fivefold. COVID-19 was a leading cause of death for officers in 2021, accounting for more than 70% of passings.
Fortunately, public assistance is available to support their survivors through the Public Safety Officer Benefits program for first responders who die in the line of duty.
Keep reading to learn more about this program, including recent updates by the Biden Administration.
History of the Public Safety Officer Benefits Program
Congress originally signed the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Act into law in September 1976. The law provided a death benefit of $50,000 for public safety officers who died in the line of duty from a traumatic injury.
The benefit was available to paid and volunteer officers and those who died in an emergency or non-emergency situation.
Today, the program provides three benefits to public safety officers and their survivors. Eligible beneficiaries are:
- Children, including those born out of wedlock or adopted
- Stepchildren aged 18 or younger
- Designated PSOB beneficiaries on file
The three types of benefits are:
- Death – lump sum benefit
- Disability – lump sum benefit
- Education – assistance for higher education expenses (i.e., tuition, books, housing)
The PSOB death benefit is mandatory, but the disability and education benefits are voluntary.
Each year, Congress is responsible for appropriating funds for the death benefit program. They must also create separate accounts to accommodate the disability and education benefits programs.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance under the Department of Justice administers the PSOB program.
Expansions to the PSOB Program
Since 1976, Congress has expanded the PSOB program to provide more benefits to public safety officers. Let’s look at some of the most critical expansions to the legislation.
Expansions Throughout the 1980s and 1990s
Congresses provided several updates to the PSOB program in the 1980s.
First, in October 1984, they amended the law to include firefights, who had been previously excluded. Likewise, in October 1986, Congress amended the law to include EMS personnel.
Then, in November 1988, they increased the death benefit to $100,000. The law retroactively went into effect on June 1 of the same year.
Under the original law, parents were subject to a dependency test to receive benefits. However, in 1988, Congress also eliminated this provision.
At this time, Congress added details stating the benefit would increase yearly to reflect changes in the consumer price index.
In November 1990, Congress amended the program to include permanent and total disability. The aim was to provide coverage for public safety officers forever unable to perform gainful employment.
In October 1998, Congress added the education benefit.
Post 9/11 Expansions
In the October 2001 Patriot Act, Congress increased the death benefit to $250,000. The law retroactively went into effect on January 1 of the same year.
Then, in June 2002, Congress passed the Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Safety Officers Benefit Act. The law added fire chaplains to the list of eligible benefits under the PSOB program.
It also expanded benefits to all dependents of fallen firefighters. Previously, benefits were only available to immediate family members.
Further, this law created a beneficiary hierarchy to identify who is eligible for benefits and how to distribute the benefits.
In December 2003, Congress passed the Hometown Heroes Act (HHA) to include deaths from heart attacks or strokes in the line of duty. The law assumes the officer died as the direct or relative result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty. The only exception is if there is clear medical evidence to suggest otherwise.
The officer must’ve engaged in a non-routine stressful situation, such as:
- Disaster relief
- Emergency medical services
- Fire suppression
- Hazardous material response
- Physical law enforcement
- Prison security
Suppose the officer died from a heart attack or stroke while still on duty after engaging in one of these activities or within 24 hours of the activity. In that case, their beneficiaries are still eligible for benefits.
Expansions Under President Obama
In January 2013, President Obama signed legislation that extends the PSOB program to nonprofit ambulance and rescue teams. The law went into effect retroactively on June 1, 2009.
The law also made the following changes:
- Allowed adult children to receive benefits
- Included vascular ruptures retroactively from the date of the HHA signing
- Gave medical and claims examiners equal opportunity to view evidence to reduce the appeals timeframe
- Created eligibility for peer support and therapy programs
November 2021 Expansions
In November 2021, President Biden signed the Protecting America’s First Responders Act. This act expands the benefits program so public safety officers who’ve suffered catastrophic injuries can continue to be employed. However, their employment must still meet a set criterion (i.e., minimal compensation, work done for therapeutic purposes).
The law also extends the disability provision to those who responded to the 9/11 attacks.
It includes an expansion of the COVID-19 presumption. Public safety offers that become injured or die after contracting COVID-19 are eligible for PSOB benefits. Conditions apply.
Further, the law:
- Expands program eligibility to those not previously covered, such as fire police, cadets, trainees
- Extends coverage to officers responding outside their jurisdiction
- Ties specific benefit amounts to when the ruling is made, not when the claim was filed
- Adjusts education benefits for dependents
- Increases the interim death payment to $6,000 from $3,000
- Links the death payment to the consumer price index for future adjustments, bypassing Congress
August 2022 Expansions
President Biden signed the Public Safety Officer Support Act into law this month. This law expands the death and disability benefits under the PSOB program to include public safety officers who:
- Perish by suicide
- Become disabled by traumatic experiences
The expansion is because these officers face a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other “mental health morbidities.”
The amendment expands survivor benefits for families by altering the definition of a “line of duty death.” The new report includes suicide in cases of first responders who respond to traumatic events. This includes:
- Mass-casualty event (over three victims)
- Mass-fatality event (three dead with a common cause)
- Mass shooting (three dead on one occasion and near)
The new definition is a follow-up on the Department of Defense’s stance that first responder work-related suicide is a line of duty death.
Thus, benefits are available for those who suffer from PTSD and acute stress disorder after responding to a traumatic event. In addition, beneficiaries of those who died by suicide due to one of these events are also eligible. The law also allows qualified officers who are permanently disabled due to attempted suicide to receive benefits.
Finally, officers exposed to criminal sexual violence are eligible for benefits under the PSOB program.
The law retroactively went into effect on January 1, 2019.
Comments on the New Legislation
Bill co-sponsors Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Representative David Trone (D-MD) said the bipartisan bill will:
- Ensure families of first responders receive vital financial support
- Provide overdue equality between physical and mental injuries
- Right the wrongs of past legislation
- Address stigma surrounding mental injuries
Another co-sponsor, Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), said the law would assist those who defended the capital during the January 6 insurrection. Rep. Beyer represents many of the officers present during the event and wanted to extend benefits to them and their families.
How to Apply for Benefits
If you’re eligible and want to apply for the PSOB program, you can do so via the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s online system. As of October 2017, you can only file your claim online.
You will need to create an account and follow the directions provided. There are detailed instructions for those starting a new application. There is also a video you can view for help with the application.
To get further assistance with the application process, you can work with a disability attorney. They have fundamental knowledge and experience in navigating complex government benefits systems.
Additionally, if you’ve already applied for benefits and were denied, an attorney can help you with the appeal process. You have 33 days after being served a denial notice to request an appeal.
Claim Your Benefits
With the most recent expansions to the Public Safety Officer Benefits program, more public safety offices and their families have access to these benefits than ever before. Still, applying for and receiving benefits can be challenging to understand.
To learn more about how to receive your benefits, contact us at Hermann Law Group. Our extensive experience with the legal system allows us to facilitate your claim efficiently and effectively.