New Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Regulations to Take Effect on June 14

On May 15 the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Federal Register notice explaining a final rule updating regulations over the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program. PSOB provides a statutory death benefit to certain survivors of public safety officers who are fatally injured in the line of duty, disability benefits to public safety officers catastrophically injured in the line of duty, and education benefits to certain survivors and family members. The majority of the new regulations take effect on June 14.

The final rule implements portions of two different regulatory actions proposed by the Obama Administration in July (“PSOB I”) and August (“PSOB II”) of 2016, respectively. According to the Executive Summary in the final rule:

“PSOB I primarily focused on certain changes needed to implement statutory changes made by the Dale Long Act (affecting members of rescue squad and ambulance crews, as well as provisions related to certain heart attack/stroke/vascular rupture cases), and also to align the working of the PSOB Program and certain provisions under the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program, as well as with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). PSOB II was to implement recent statutory changes, address some gaps in the regulations, and to improve the efficiency of the PSOB Program claims process.”

The final rule modifies or adds a definition for “Employed by a public agency,” “Line of duty activity or action,” “Officially recognized or designated public employee member of a squad or crew,” “designated volunteer member of a squad or crew,” “Official training program of a public agency,” and “Public safety agency.” It also removes the definition of “Public employee member of a squad or crew.”

Many of the regulatory changes made in the final rule were implemented previously by the PSOB office, which processes PSOB applications and claims. For instance, passage of the Dale Long Act has enabled the PSOB office to make awards in recent years in cases involving volunteer members of private, nonprofit EMS agencies, vascular rupture injuries suffered as a result of line-of-duty activity, and WTC-related illnesses, even before the new regulations were put into place. These aspects of the final rule simply update the regulations to conform with current practice based on existing statute.

There are several components of the final rule unrelated to the Dale Long Act that specifically focus on volunteer emergency services agencies. The final rule does not modify the definition of “Suppression of Fire” to include various traffic incident management (TIM) duties, which had been proposed under PSOB II. This change, which was requested by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and was supported in a joint comment submitted by a number of national fire service organizations, would have simplified the process by which members of volunteer fire departments whose responsibilities are limited to TIM are able to qualify for PSOB. Under the law, members of qualified volunteer fire departments are firefighters and are therefore eligible for PSOB, but in 2006 the DOJ implemented a narrower definition of “firefighter.” Because of the narrower definition there have been several instances since 2006 of PSOB applications resulting from the line-of-duty death of a member of a qualified volunteer fire department being denied, at least initially. The NVFC is working with Congress to pass legislation that would fix this problem in statute.

The second volunteer-specific provision in the final rule creates a presumption that a private, nonprofit volunteer fire or EMS agency providing services for a local government entity is acting on behalf of that entity. Previously, nonprofit agencies were required to prove that this type of relationship existed in order to be considered “public safety” organizations. The new regulation will make it much easier to establish that volunteer firefighters and EMTs who belong to nonprofit agencies are public safety officers and therefore eligible for PSOB.

“I encourage those in the volunteer emergency services who work on PSOB cases, including those who are part of Local Assistance State Teams (LAST), to familiarize themselves with the new regulations,” said NVFC Chair Kevin D. Quinn. “PSOB is a critical program, and it is incumbent on all of us in the public safety community to do everything we can to ensure that it works for families and survivors.”