Press Releases

Senator Feinstein Co-Sponsors Aerial Firefighter Relief Act

-Legislation would provide benefits for contract firefighting pilots and air crews-

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today joined with Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to introduce the Aerial Firefighter Relief Act, which would extend federal death and disability benefits to contract pilots and air crews killed or injured while flying official firefighting missions for State or Federal agencies.

The legislation would make these contract air crews eligible for the same benefits available to government air crews under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) program.

“These contract pilots and crew members assume the same risks as government air crews when they climb into government-owned firefighting aircraft. Yet they are denied equal benefits if they are killed or injured in the line of duty. This is fundamentally unfair,” Senator Feinstein said.

“This legislation will close this loophole, and it recognizes the contributions of these brave pilots and crews, who play a significant role in protecting our communities from wildfires.”

“A small technicality in current law is the only reason that aerial fire crews are disqualified from receiving federal benefits,” said Senator Enzi. “These crews risk their lives doing the same work as full-time federal employees and they should get the same benefit coverage.”

This PSOB program provides financial and educational benefits to individuals serving a public safety agency in an official capacity, on a paid or volunteer basis.  This includes, but is not limited to, law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and ambulance crew members.

But the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, which administers the program, has ruled that air tanker pilots are ineligible because they are contractors not directly employed by Federal or State agencies involved in wildland fire management and suppression.

The Aerial Firefighter Relief Act of 2007, which would end this denial of benefits, is the Senate companion to legislation introduced today in the House of Representatives by Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.).

This legislation would address the case of Larry Groff, who was killed in a midair collision on August 27, 2001, after taking off from Ukiah, Calif. Groff was responding to a North Coast fire started after two Hells Angels blew up their methamphetamine lab.

At the time of his death, Groff was piloting a State-operated air tanker, and wearing a California Department of Forestry uniform.

But the Bureau of Justice Assistance denied a claim for benefits filed by his widow, Christine Wells-Groff, leaving her to face the prospect of raising their six children without assistance from the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit program.

Mrs. Wells-Groff appealed the agency’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which ruled in 2006 that her husband was eligible for the PSOB benefits. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned that ruling on July 3.

Mrs. Wells-Groff has since petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case, and the Government’s response is due today.

“It is unclear whether the Supreme Court will hear her case, let alone decide in her favor. So I believe that Congress should take action to clarify this law, so that brave contract pilots like Mr. Groff, who do this nation a great service at great risk to themselves, can receive the same benefits as government workers doing the same jobs,” Senator Feinstein said.

Following is a summary of the Aerial Firefighter Relief Act of 2007:

  • States that it is vital that Congress continues to encourage the recruitment and retention of skilled, experienced aerial firefighters.
  • Amends the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 by making contract pilots and air crews eligible for death and disability benefits for accidents that occur during the operation of government-owned aircraft in the line of duty;
  • Makes this coverage retroactive to September 29, 1976;