- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Family members of a police officer or firefighter who dies on duty could qualify for at least $50,000 from the state under a Nebraska bill that follows a string of on-duty emergency responder deaths.

The proposal set for a hearing Monday would allow a one-time payment of $50,000 to a spouse, child or other designated person starting next year. Payouts would increase in tandem with inflation. It’s the latest in a series of measures lawmakers have passed in recent years to provide state benefits to emergency responders.

The measure by Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln comes after Dakota City’s fire department lost three of its members to heart attacks in an 18-month period. It also follows the 2015 death of Omaha police officer Kerrie Orozco of Council Bluffs, Iowa. She was shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant on a gang member. The bill doesn’t impose a Nebraska residency requirement.

It also would apply to state and county corrections officers. In 2014, Scotts Bluff County jail guard Amanda Baker was strangled by a 15-year-old inmate who lured her into his cell.

“It’s an acknowledgement of everybody who serves the state in a position like that, recognizing the burdens they place on themselves and their families,” Hansen said.

The bill is likely to face some resistance given the state’s projected shortfall of nearly $900 million in its upcoming two-year budget. Micheal Dwyer, secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association, said he understands the state’s budget crunch but argued that senators should give it a serious look.

“We don’t want to be spending money needlessly,” said Dwyer, a firefighter in Arlington. “As a taxpayer and a conservative, I get that. But if a man or woman is willing to put their life on the line for the people of their communities, then I think the $50,000 is the least we can do.”

Relatives of emergency officials who die on the job often lose their primary source of income and health care coverage, said John Francavilla, the past president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police. Some cities offer life insurance policies and other payments under union contracts, but the benefits vary.

“This is just something to help get them through emotionally and financially,” Francavilla said.

Last year, lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved a $250 refundable tax credit for volunteer firefighters and emergency responders to offset their training costs.

In smaller towns, many fire departments have struggled to recruit new volunteers to replace older members who are retiring.

Lawmakers considered a similar payout bill last year, but the measure stalled in committee. Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha questioned the need for it during the bill hearing, arguing that many officers and responders already qualify for a death benefit.

Under federal law, relatives of firefighters who die on the job are eligible a benefit of nearly $345,000. Chambers said police officers aren’t always at risk, and in some cases are more likely to die from “eating too much saturated fat.”

“If we’re talking about valuing the life of a person, $50,000 is not enough to compensate anybody,” he said.

Still, the proposal struck an emotional chord with Pat Moore, the first assistant fire chief in Dakota City, who lost three friends from his department in a recent 18-month stretch.

Dakota City Fire Capt. Andy Zalme, 42, died of a heart attack in April 2015 while responding to a car fire. Capt. Eric Speck, 38, died in June during a medical call.

In September, 67-year-old Lowell Satterwhite died of a heart attack about 12 hours after responding to a medical call. Deaths from heart attacks and strokes are considered line-of-duty if they occur within 24 hours after a call.

Moore said volunteer firefighters save their communities money compared to a full-time staff, and the bill “is a way to give back to them.” The department responds to roughly 350 calls a year, he said.

“I wouldn’t want the benefit to ever have to be used,” Moore said. “But it would be good to know it’s there.”

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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