By Ron Siarnicki
As captain of the Lutherville (Maryland) Volunteer Fire Department, near Baltimore, Steve Weatherby was confident he and his department were well prepared for any call for help, for every imaginable incident. As with every department, the members routinely drill and practice. They all take necessary fire service classes and become recertified. They debrief after calls—formally and informally—with colleagues in the department. They always want to be ready for the next emergency situation.
Departments that have never experienced an LODD may not have plans in place for how to deal with the tragedy when it happens. The primary objective of LAST is to provide assistance and comfort to the family and department after an LODD, and to help with filing federal, state and local benefits claims. Photo iStock.com
Despite their efforts to serve their community, Chief Weatherby admits they were not prepared for one incident: the line-of-duty death (LODD) of one of their own. On Jan. 19, firefighter and paramedic Mark Falkenhan was conducting search and rescue on the third floor of an apartment building. He was overcome by heavy fire conditions following a flashover and died.
“You never think this will happen to you and your department,” Weatherby says. “It was a complete shock and it took several hours for me to collect my thoughts and put things in motion.”
As the devastating news quickly spread through the department, the members rallied to offer comfort to the family and each other. But the administrative work that followed Falkenhan’s passing was daunting, and Weatherby wanted everything done properly to ensure the family received the benefits and resources they needed.
Fortunately, within hours of the incident the coordinator from the Local Assistance State Team (LAST) contacted the department to offer its assistance, says Weatherby, who describes the time as confusing and painful.LAST Objectives
LAST is a collaborative effort between the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that survivors of firefighters who died in the line of duty receive Public Safety Officer’s Benefits (PSOB). The primary objective of LAST is to provide assistance and comfort to the family and department after an LODD, and to help with filing federal, state and local benefits claims.
The state’s LAST coordinator makes initial contact with the department to offer ready assistance if needed, explains John Proels, national coordinator for the LAST program: “We are ready to help any department, large or small, urban or rural, as they cope with the tragedy of losing one of their own.”
It is critical for departments to have action plans in place for responding to a member’s death. Ideally, every department should have up-to-date personnel records for each member, and a system for quickly and appropriately notifying immediate family members. Every department should also have access to all the necessary forms for filing the family’s benefits claims.
But not every department does, and LAST can assist departments faced with an LODD.
LAST members are ready to offer guidance, but only by department leadership request, Proels says. “A coordinator will not take over,” he explains. “Their role is to help sort through the documents and make certain the PSOB claim is submitted properly for review by the Department of Justice.”Going a Step Further
LAST can also provide assistance beyond the administrative process, upon family or department request. The program’s team members are available to assist with funeral arrangements, including Honor Guard, and to ensure the family’s needs are priority. LAST coordinators can also help family members contact through the NFFF a fire service survivor who has had similar life experiences, as well as help family and department members find behavioral specialists to assist in rebuilding their lives.
“Before the Foundation developed the LAST program, there was a gap in how to deal with the loss,” Weatherby says. “Now there’s a team in every state so you know you can go directly to the coordinator and get the firefighter’s family the assistance they may need.”
Since October 2006, more than 550 fire service personnel and survivors across the country—in 48 states and the District of Columbia—have been trained to serve on the LAST teams for their state in the event of an LODD. Members from all areas of the fire service have participated in the LAST training program and are assisting their state teams in helping the survivors and departments who have suffered LODDs.
The protocol is regularly updated and all LAST members receive a thumb drive during the training so they can quickly access any revisions to forms, procedures and practices. This helps to guarantee that all LAST members are knowledgeable about any changes to the process.Now Is the Time to Prepare
Weatherby urges all fire chiefs—from small departments and municipalities to major metropolitan departments—to be prepared for the unthinkable death of a department member. “I strongly recommend that all department leadership go to the NFFF website and familiarize themselves with all the tips and resources available,” he says, “so that if this unfortunate event happens in their department, they are better prepared.”
For more information about LODDs and the LAST program, or for information on participating in your state’s Local Assistance State Team, visit http://www.firehero.org/resources/departments/last/
Part Two of this series will look at the Foundation’s Taking Care of Our Own program and how fire chiefs can be better prepared for handling LODDs. For more information, visit http://firehero.org/resources/departments/tcoo/
.Ron Siarnicki is the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation in Emmitsburg, Md. He is also the former fire chief of Prince George’s County and current vice president of the United Communities Volunteer Fire Department in Queen Anne’s County.
Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE