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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    Gales Ferry fire chief drives national legislation

    Congress is on the verge of passing a bill that will provide death benefits for the loved ones of fire police. The legislative process on the issue began 10 years ago with Gales Ferry Volunteer Fire Company Chief Anthony Saccone.

    The Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officer Benefits program provides a $370,000 payout, and $1,200 a month in education assistance to the spouse or children of first responders killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Saccone reached out to U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, after learning of what he and Courtney say is an oversight in the program: Fire police weren’t included. 

    Fire police are designated members of a fire department who mainly control traffic around a fire scene and help set up equipment. Because there is no uniform national designation for fire police, many of these public servants have trouble accessing benefits that other public safety officers receive.

    “We have seven fire police of our own in town,” Saccone said Friday. “I remember an incident when one of our fire police captains, about 10 years ago, he was around 79 years old at the time, we had a motor vehicle accident on Route 12. It was 2 a.m. ... It was on a bad curve and someone came down Route 12 at a high rate of speed. Even though we had barricades up, we had lights flashing, this gentleman who was 79 years old had to jump over the guard rail to avoid being hit and run down.”

    Saccone considered a hypothetical. If he was conducting traffic control with a fire police officer and they were both hit and killed, his family would be receiving federal death benefits whereas his counterpart’s family would get nothing.

    Saccone said he didn’t think the legislation would change minds about people joining up as fire police, but it would at least give fire police a sense of security.

    The House overwhelmingly passed the Protecting America’s First Responders Act this week, which folded in Courtney’s Fire Police Fairness Act. The Senate is expected to pass the bill as early as next week after consenting to a minor change made by the House.

    Courtney said the Department of Justice had held that since fire police exist in only a handful of states and Congress has not set a uniform national definition for them, fire police would not be included in the benefits program.

    “That was their opinion, and I’m not sure it made a lot of sense, but the bottom line is that left only a legislative path to get coverage,” Courtney said Thursday. “Anthony was passionate about this and brought me down to the firehouse and educated me and then we went ahead and drafted the bill.”

    In a news release, Courtney’s office quoted him as saying, “At a time when we need to be doing all we can to support our public safety and law enforcement officers, ensuring America’s fire police and their families are eligible for these critical benefits is the right thing to do.”

    “Fire police respond to emergencies right alongside police and fire services — they put themselves in harm’s way to protect our communities, and they deserve the same assurance that other public safety officers have that our country is going to honor their service if, God forbid, they are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty,” Courtney also said in the news release.

    Courtney pointed out that it took 10 years of effort to make this happen, and Saccone laughs about how slow things move in Washington.

    “I thought it (the legislation) was dead. I know Congressman Courtney had been working on it, but the thought of it passing faded away,” Saccone said. “Until a couple weeks ago I got an email saying it was going to be passed. I was astonished, and so grateful. Things in D.C. seem to take a long time.”

    Saccone said he’s already noticing an impact outside of Connecticut.

    “I got a phone call all the way from somewhere in Pennsylvania last week that their father had passed, he had a massive heart attack at a motor vehicle accident as a fire policeman, and they’ve been fighting the Department of Justice for something like five years,” he said. “He called me to thank everybody involved, and they think that as soon as it passes, they’re going to refile paperwork to have their father recognized as a line-of-duty death.”

    The fact that this legislation came to be because of a volunteer fire company chief in Gales Ferry, Connecticut, isn’t lost on Courtney.

    “The prognosis is good that it’s going to get through, and good for Anthony — it’s not like he had lobbyists down here or a super PAC,” he said. “It’s nice to see that.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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