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Hundreds of Families Wait for Firefighter, Police Officer Death Benefits

Two years ago this month, firefighter Michael Childress died of heart failure while at the Level Cross firehouse in rural Randolph County.

Childress, 48, was found by his teenage daughter, slumped in his chair.

Under the law, he died in the line of duty, and is due nearly $300,000 in death benefits.

But Childress' family is still waiting. They are among more than 200 U.S. survivors of firefighters or police officers who died on the job still waiting for federal death benefits that were signed into law more than three years ago.

Nationwide, only two families have been approved while 40 have been denied.

Advocates for the families say the U.S. Department of Justice is stonewalling payouts by slowing the process and demanding years of medical records from families.

"The Justice Department appears to be intentionally misinterpreting the intention of Congress," said U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., who sponsored the legislation titled Hometown Heroes Act. "It's time for people in the Justice Department to stop dragging their feet and putting up roadblocks."

Though Michael Childress had suffered a heart attack more than a year before his death, he'd since passed all required fitness tests to be allowed to fight fires.

To prove he died in the line of duty, his wife, Teresa Childress, has filled out reams of paperwork and had his boss send her husband's medical records to Washington on two occasions, including this past winter.

"It's been a long experience," she said of the struggle to get the money. "It's been a lot of waiting and waiting and waiting."

The U.S. Justice Department says its agency that handles the program pledges to have answers within 90 days of receiving "all necessary information."

Applications are "unique and require different levels of review and outreach," Domingo S. Herraiz, director of the agency that oversees the program, said in a statement.

"The Department of Justice is committed to assisting public safety officers, their families, and their agencies throughout times of tragedy," Herraiz said in the statement.

The New England Journal of Medicine said in a report this year that firefighters are more prone to heart attacks after responding to emergency calls.

Stress and overexertion are the main killers of firefighters, according to national statistics from the U.S Department of Homeland Security. For police, stress and overexertion are the No. 2 causes of death behind vehicle wrecks, the statistics show.

Etheridge said he and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, developed the Hometown Heroes Act after learning about a Lumberton firefighter who died of a heart attack at the scene of a fire but received no benefits from the Public Service Officers Benefit, a program run by the U.S. Justice Department.

The legislation says if an emergency responder dies of a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of duty, there is a "presumption" that the person died in the line of duty. The law focuses on people who respond physically to emergency calls and includes exceptions for those with desk jobs.

Victims of heart attack or stroke typically had previous risk factors, which often are evident in medical records, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance. To help victims, the bureau has tried to relax its interpretation of documents.

Etheridge and other critics say the Bush administration is not following the intentions of the law by requiring families to submit years of medical records to prove their cases.

"It's creating a lot of hardships on a lot of families," said Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute in Washington. "Right now, it's putting the burden right back on family members, which should not be the case."