- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

BOSTON (AP) — Firefighter Marty McNamara had two young daughters and a third on the way when he barreled into a burning basement last November. His family was protected by the same accidental death benefit that covers every part-time firefighter in the state: none.

On Tuesday, the town of Lancaster voted to deny Mr. McNamara’s widow survivor benefits, a move that has sparked outrage in and out of the town, where the local newspaper’s headline read, “Lancaster picks pocketbook over heart by 18 votes.”

Mr. McNamara’s death, and the subsequent vote, exposed a system in which towns ask part-time and volunteer firefighters to risk their lives, but leave their families with nothing if a fire takes them.

Lancaster Selectman David Dunn hopes the case will create an opportunity for statewide reform.

“If Lancaster has a black eye and embarrassment, we should take that black eye and embarrassment and point out it could happen anywhere in the state of Massachusetts,” Mr. Dunn said.

About 30 provisional votes remain to be counted, but Mr. Dunn said there is little chance the vote will change. Officials plan to meet today to consider other ways to help Claire McNamara and her family.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, half the states have no pension benefits for widows of volunteer firefighters who die in the line of duty. Some, unlike Massachusetts, also have no one-time payment to the families. A few don’t even pay for funerals.

In Massachusetts, as many as 10,000 volunteer and on-call firefighters — who, unlike volunteers, are paid a small stipend — staff roughly 230 departments, said Lawrence Holmberg, president of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association.

Mr. McNamara’s family, who live in neighboring Clinton, have received about $400,000 in one-time state and federal benefits, in addition to charitable donations. Mr. Dunn said the town may consider raising funds through private donations or selling town property.

But Mr. Dunn is hoping for a broader solution: asking the state’s 230 towns with on-call or volunteer departments for a one-time, $30,000 investment into a reserve fund to pay death benefits.

State Rep. Harold Naughton, a Democrat who represents Lancaster, said the towns must take more responsibility for their firefighters.

“The state isn’t going to just assume the obligation here,” he said. “There should be a requirement these towns provide for this, or get out of the business of having on-call fire departments.”

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