Mass. public safety bill to increase death benefits wins approval

Massachusetts lawmakers, moved by the deaths of the two Boston firefighters, are rushing this week to increase the state’s death benefit for the families of public safety personnel killed in the line of duty.

The House voted unanimously Wednesday to approve legislation that would raise from $100,000 to $150,000 a one-time payment that the state provides to the families of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other frontline workers who die while serving their community. The Senate plans to approve the bill Thursday, readying it for Governor Deval Patrick to sign into law soon after that.

Legislators said the death benefit has not been increased since 1994.

In addition to the state benefit, surviving family members of firefighters killed in the line of duty are eligible for a federal benefit of $333,000 and can also continue to receive the firefighter’s salary for life, said Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, a former firefighter, and once a top official in the state firefighter’s union.

The death benefit bill is the first of what could be a series of legislative responses to the fatal Back Bay fire.

After 100 people were killed in the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003, Massachusetts lawmakers responded by toughening fire regulations, requiring hundreds of business owners to install sprinklers, train staff in crowd management, and adopt other safeguards.

The tax-free $150,000 death benefit, lawmakers said, will apply to the families of Boston Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh, 43, a married father of three, and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, 33, a former Marine, who died last Wednesday in a wind-fueled fire in a Back Bay brownstone.

It will also apply, they said, to the family of Plymouth police Officer Gregg Maloney, 43, a married father of two who was killed in a motorcycle crash Tuesday.

House lawmakers took up the bill just hours after Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and other legislators attended Walsh’s funeral in Watertown Wednesday.

DeLeo, who is planning to attend Kennedy’s funeral Thursday, asked House members to stand and observe a moment of silence in memory of Walsh, Kennedy, and Maloney before opening the floor to speeches.

Representative Edward F. Coppinger – a Democrat from West Roxbury, where Walsh lived – delivered his first-ever address in support of the bill. He said the bill is particularly important to his district, which includes Roslindale and is home to 400 police officers and firefighters, arguably more than in any other area of Boston.

“Every day, firefighters across the state risk their lives to keep us safe,” Coppinger said. “Today, we have an opportunity to show them we will take care of their families when they make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston released a statement thanking the governor and the Legislature for moving quickly to increase the death benefit.

“The Walsh and Kennedy families will need ongoing support in this immediate time of need and for years to come,” the mayor said. “We all know that no amount of money can replace Lieutenant Edward Walsh or Firefighter Michael Kennedy, but this benefit increase shows the Commonwealth’s true commitment to supporting the families of our fallen heroes and our profound appreciation for the sacrifice that they have made.”

The bill was pushed by the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, a statewide union, after last week’s blaze, said Donnelly. He said the union was concerned that the value of the $100,000 benefit had eroded in the 20 years since it was approved. If the benefit had kept pace with inflation, he said, it would be about $160,000 today.

“I don’t know that anybody can really argue against the merits of it,” Donnelly said. “It’s a little something we can do.”

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