AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are weighing a bill that would increase the state death benefit to survivors of first responders killed in the line of duty, prompted in part by the deaths of two firefighters and two police officers in the last two years.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, would raise the benefit from $50,000 to $75,000. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, proposed a $100,000 death benefit in the supplemental budget she submitted to the Legislature in January.

“One cannot put a value on the loss of life — any life,” Paul Gaspar, the executive director of the Maine Association of Police, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in public testimony on Monday. “The families of our fallen have made the ultimate sacrifice along with their loved one.”

Maine’s benefit for firefighters, police and emergency medical service workers who die while doing their jobs is the lowest of all the New England states, Gaspar said. New Hampshire pays a $100,000 death benefit and Massachusetts $300,000 for police who are killed on duty.

Gaspar highlighted the loss of four first responders who died on duty since 2018: Somerset County Sheriff Deputy Eugene Cole, Farmington Fire Capt. Michael Bell, Maine State Police Detective Benjamin Campbell and Berwick Fire Capt. Joel Barnes.

Bell, 68, died in a propane explosion in September 2019; Campbell, 31, was struck by a runaway truck tire while aiding a disabled motorist in April 2019; Barnes, 32, died fighting an apartment building fire in March 2019 and Cole, 61, was gunned down in April 2018 by a man who was later convicted of murder.

“These are the people — professionals and volunteers alike — who have the backs of the citizens of Maine when we are in harm’s way,”  Ackley said at the hearing. “These are inherently risky jobs. This bill is about ensuring that every Maine first responder knows that if, God forbid, they pay the ultimate price in the line of duty — a duty performed for our benefit — that the citizens of Maine have their backs.”

Ackley’s bill also would add an annual cost of living adjustment to the state’s death benefit for first responders. He said he introduced the measure after consulting with Wales Fire Chief Anthony Siderio and others who oversee small fire departments that depend almost exclusively on volunteer firefighters.

The bill, L.D. 2044,  gained support from a broad cross-section of emergency workers, including State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas and Craig Poulin, the executive director of the Maine State Troopers Association. The state’s largest labor union, Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, also offered its support to the bill, as did the Professional Firefighters of Maine.

Jeff McCabe, a former state lawmaker from Skowhegan who represents the service employees’ union before the Legislature, asked the committee to match Mills’ proposal of $100,000.

“Maine is a large state geographically but recent events have made all too clear, and close to home, the dangers Maine’s firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency services personnel face every day — 24/7 — on each and every call,” McCabe said.

Ackley also urged the committee to pass the bill as an emergency measure so it would become effective immediately, if passed by the full Legislature and signed by Mills. The bill will be the subject for a work session before the committee on Wednesday.

 


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