In October 2004, Gary Tilton, the fire chief in Katy, Texas, came home and showered after directing traffic around an accident in the Texas humidity. Within minutes, he lay dying of a heart attack. Eighteen months later, Russell Schwantes, a 19-year veteran of the Atlanta Fire Department, collapsed on the job of a heart attack and died nine days. Cases like these led Congress to pass the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003, which extended federal benefits to survivors of public safety officers who died of heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of responding to an emergency, reports the New York Times.
The federal death benefits are administered by the Justice Department and are currently worth just over $300,000. But these two men's widows, Jo Ann Tilton and Athena Schwantes, said they became increasingly frustrated with the program, which is slow to pay. And a department audit released in March confirmed that they were far from alone in raising questions about how slowly claims were being processed and why so many were rejected. The audit concluded the Justice Department narrowly interpreted the law's intent, one reason that, by October 2007, it had denied 58 of the 72 claims it had processed.