Families of fallen firefighters denied federal benefits

07/29/2014 4:13 PM

07/29/2014 4:24 PM

Mark Ransdell and seven fellow firefighters died without federal benefits 11 years ago on their way home from battling an Idaho blaze.

They were contractors who had worked alongside U.S. Forest Service crews to save the Boise National Forest. Now, long after the firefighters died in a catastrophic highway crash, a federal appellate court has rejected family members’ bid for federal compensation.

If the eight men had been Forest Service employees, family members could have received payments of about $250,000 under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act. But because the firefighters were contractors, judges say, the family members are ineligible.

“Employees of independent contractors do not qualify as ‘public safety officers’ for the purposes of the Benefits Act,” Judge Timothy B. Dyk wrote for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. “Firefighters are public safety officers only if they are formally employed by a public agency.”

The appellate court’s decision, dated July 25, punctuates a long battle by the firefighters’ families. It also could be a wake-up call for other federal contractors, who in the middle of fighting a fire may appear indistinguishable from a civil servant.

The Forest Service nationwide currently contracts with 41 ground attack crews, each with 20 firefighters, Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, said Tuesday. The Forest Service also uses contractors for aerial and support operations.

“The question is, if you’re a firefighter, do you know whether you and your family are covered by federal benefits?” asked attorney Denise M. Clark, who has represented the families of the eight dead firefighters. In an interview Tuesday, Clark said “we’re evaluating” what steps might follow the appellate court’s 13-page decision.

Potentially, the families could seek review of the three-judge panel’s decision by the entire federal circuit court. The families also could petition the Supreme Court, which reversed the federal circuit in five out of six cases considered last term.

“For some of the families, who are poor, it would be nice to get the money,” said Oregon resident Dale Ransdell, a retired deputy sheriff whose son Mark was among those who died. “I’m more interested in setting the precedent, because this is going to continue to happen.”

Congress also could wade in. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has introduced a bill to extend public safety officer benefits to contract wildland firefighters.

The Roseburg, Ore.-based company that employed the eight firefighters, First Strike Environmental, said in a statement Tuesday that it was “very disappointed” with the denial of benefits and that it was “in full support” of legislation extending benefits to contractors.

During two weeks in August 2003, First Strike Environmental deployed the eight men as part of a 20-member crew to help fight the 6,765-acre South Fork fire. Their work done, the men died Aug. 24, 2003, when their van collided head-on with a tractor-trailer in eastern Oregon. The youngest firefighter was 19 and the oldest was 38; Mark Ransdell was 23.

Family members applied for the public safety officer benefits. Nationwide, more than 900 death benefit applications were filed between 2006 and 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office. Eighty percent of the death benefit applications were accepted during the three years studied by the GAO.

When the Bureau of Justice Administration denied the claims, family members appealed to the federal circuit. The same court, in 2007, had rejected a similar claim filed by the widow of a contract pilot who died when his aerial tanker crashed in Northern California.

As in 2007, Dyk wrote that “we must again defer” to the Bureau of Justice Administration’s judgment that private contractors don’t count as public safety officers. The specific facts of the new case underscored the distinction, Dyk reasoned.

“During the firefighting operation, a Forest Service supervisor communicated by hand-held radio with the First Strike crew boss, but was not on-site with the First Strike crew and thus could not direct the crew what tools to use, where to stage personnel or otherwise how to accomplish the goal,” Dyk noted.

Still, the names of the eight fallen contract firefighters are etched on the National Interagency Fire Center’s Wildland Firefighter National Monument in Boise, as well as on the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md.

“Our guys were working right alongside the (Forest Service) crews,” Dale Ransdell said. “They all need to be treated the same.”

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