Six and a half hours before he suffered a fatal heart attack while scuba diving, Michael Kucsma was among the firefighters and rescue workers who responded to a serious multiple-vehicle accident in Standish.
Under federal law, that could mean Kucsma died in the line of duty, which would entitle his wife to a one-time federal death benefit for survivors of first responders. The Public Safety Officers Benefits Act authorizes payment of the benefit to the family of an emergency responder who dies of a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of responding to an emergency.
“Firefighters and police officers are put in high stress situations,” said Tim Nangle, spokesman for the Portland Fire Department, where Kucsma was a captain on Engine 6. “Firefighters especially are exposed to smoke and carbon monoxide and all sorts of chemicals which do tend to have a long-term effect on our hearts and our lungs and things like that.”
“That’s a risk we take and we do everything we can to mitigate that risk by using breathing apparatus and turnout gear, but there’s always a little bit there,” he said. The (death benefit) criteria were set up with an understanding of that – there are some long-term health risks.”
Kucsma, 43, suffered the heart attack while scuba diving Monday afternoon near Tukey’s Bridge. An autopsy performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner showed that he had arteriosclerosis, a buildup inside the arteries that can set the stage for cardiac arrest.
Kucsma worked full time as a captain with the Portland Fire Department, and he was also a deputy chief with the Gorham Fire Department. He had signed off duty from his Portland job at 8 a.m. Sunday.
The federal benefits law was originally passed in 1976 and amended in 2003 to include heart attacks and strokes that strike responders up to 24 hours after an emergency call. The benefit applies to firefighters, police officers and emergency medical workers. The original benefit of $50,000 has been increased over the years and adjusted for inflation to the current amount of $333,600. The state contributes an additional $50,000, based on the same federal eligibility rules, Nangle said.
Kucsma responded Monday morning to a three-vehicle accident in Standish. Three people were hospitalized, and two remain so. The crash, involving a truck loaded with lumber, a pickup and a van, shut down the road for five and a half hours.
Gorham Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre also responded to the scene, along with Kucsma and others.
“We were out there for two hours,” Lefebvre said. “We then came back from that call and had a meeting in my office and we walked out of the building together at about noon time and he was heading in (to Portland) to do his dive.”
Lefebvre said the original intent of the federal law was to boost efforts to recruit and retain public safety workers. Medical experts had input in the decision to amend the law to include heart attacks and strokes.
The 2003 amendment says in part: “If a public safety officer dies as a direct and proximate result of a heart attack or stroke, that officer shall be presumed to have died as the direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty unless such presumption is not overcome by competent medical evidence to the contrary.” The law covers deaths during “non-routine stressful or strenuous” public safety activity and up to 24 hours afterward.
Nangle said Portland firefighters are working with the Gorham Fire Department to apply for a ruling that Kucsma died in the line of duty.
“It still needs to be evaluated by the national fire administration. We’re going to do everything we can to help the family in the long term,” he said, referring to Kucsma’s wife, Marcia, who survives him. “Where we’re making this application, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to get it. The likelihood is probably.”
A call to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which administers the federal program, was not returned Thursday.
The last time a Portland firefighter was deemed to have died in the line of duty even though the death occurred later was in 1993, when Frank E. Cowan suffered a heart attack while fighting a fire on Congress Street and was hospitalized. He was still out of work because of the first heart attack when he had another while mowing his lawn and died.
Cowan’s family received the death benefit because it was determined the second heart attack occurred because of damage caused by the first one, Nangle said.
As a Portland firefighter, Kucsma had to pass a physical fitness test that measured his endurance, strength and flexibility. As a member of the Gorham hazardous materials response team, he also had to pass an extensive physical exam.
“If he had not been cleared medically, he would not have been able to respond,” Lefebvre said. He said he believes Kucsma is the first Gorham firefighter to die in the line of duty during Lefebvre’s 30 years as chief.
A heart attack occurs when a buildup of plaque on the wall of an artery that carries blood to the heart ruptures and forms a clot that blocks the artery, said Dr. Marco Diaz, a cardiologist with Maine Medical Partners. When one of the arteries feeding the heart is blocked, a portion of the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, leading to damage.
The ruptures are slightly more common during exertion or stress. In addition to a more rapid pulse and higher blood pressure, the body produces hormones that make the ruptures more likely, Diaz said.
Kucsma’s wife will be eligible, as are all spouses of emergency workers, for a portion of his state pension. That percentage is reduced by 2 percent for each year he had remaining until he was eligible for retirement. He had worked in the fire service 21 years, four less than the 25-year minimum to be eligible.
Firefighters are maintaining an around-the-clock vigil at the funeral home until his memorial service. Visiting hours are from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Jones Rich & Hutchins Funeral Home at 199 Woodford St. His funeral will be an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.