Table Of Contents
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Part I: Firefighter Compensation In Illinois
How many occupations can you think of that require employees to risk their lives every single day? Firefighters, police officers, or first responder will likely be your first thought. Numerous professions involve some level of risk, but no one puts their life on the line on a daily basis like a first responder. Firefighters, police officers, paramedics and other emergency first responders live up to their iconic heroism by working long hours and sacrificing their own lives to save others, regardless of how physically, mentally, or emotionally demanding the job is.
With nearly 1.2 million career and volunteer firefighters currently serving in the United States, Illinois is one of the top five states with the highest number of employed firefighters. No matter how dangerous a situation is, firefighters are trained to handle every type of emergency that comes their way- from rescuing an elderly couple from a house fire, to cleaning up a massive chemical spill in a nuclear power plant. Filling out paperwork, educating children, caring for sick individuals, and driving large emergency vehicles are just a few of the endless responsibilities of a firefighter. There are very few occupations that are riskier than being a firefighter and require so much versatility.
In addition to laying their life on the line, being a firefighter takes its toll on the body in many ways. Because of the sacrifices firefighters make every day, the Illinois legislature has established several laws that support first responders and their families in the event of an injury or death. Oftentimes, first responders qualify to receive benefits under multiple laws. Depending on the situation, for example, a firefighter could claim benefits for an injury under the Public Pension Code, the Workers’ Compensation Act, the Public Employee Disability Act, and the Public Safety Employee Benefit Act if he or she was injured on the clock.
Advantages Of Being A Firefighter
In addition to laws that both benefit and protect firefighters and their families, there are several personal advantages to being a firefighter. A person who is considering a career in firefighting and enjoys fast-paced work environments where no two days are the same can also look forward to:
- Working with a team– Working in a fire department is a dream come true for people who enjoy working in teams. Teamwork is a key component to a successful fire department. Battling a wild forest fire will never be a solo job.
- Job security– For as long as there are humans on the earth, firefighters will always be needed. Illinois has more employed firefighters than most states in the country.
- The pay– According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of an Illinois firefighter is $58,170.
- The physical fitness aspect– Firefighters must be physically fit in order to execute their job duties- plain and simple. Firefighters spend a lot of time on their feet in a fast-paced environment.
- Hands-on training– Firefighter training can start right when a person finishes high school. There is no degree required- but rather, certifications. Some people train best with a hands-on training approach to get them comfortable in the field. Firefighter training is not all about hitting the books. Not all forms of firefighter training, however, is hands-on.
- A fulfilling career– For many people, a career as a firefighter is a lifelong dream. It is personally rewarding to help others, even if it means risking your own life.
Part II: Illinois Laws That Benefit Firefighters
In return for their public service, firefighters are protected under various laws in Illinois in the event that they are injured or killed in the line of duty. Due to the complexity of the laws that protect firefighters and their families, which also come with strict regulations, it is important to have an experienced lawyer that can assist in maximizing your benefits to their fullest potential.
1. Public Employee Disability Act (PEDA) – 5 ILCS 345/1
The Public Employee Disability Act (PEDA) is an Illinois law established in 1997 that provides full, financial support to firefighters and first responders that are injured in the line of duty. Injured employees who are unable to work can receive benefits for up to one year. The Public Employee Disability Act generally offers a more generous payout than standard workers’ compensation in Illinois. The law also states that the injured public worker cannot lose sick leave, service credits, vacation credits, etc.
PEDA-eligible public employees must adhere to a number of strict regulations. During the period of their disability, the disabled worker may not engage in any type of work under any circumstance. For firefighters, this means volunteer part-time work at the firehouse is not permissible.
A further explanation of PEDA benefits include:
- Paid Disability– Injured firefighters and first responders are entitled to 100% of their salary under the Public Employee Disability Act when they are injured in the line of duty. Compensation is offered up to one year as long as the injured person is unable to work.
- Secured Pension– In addition to receiving full salary and benefits during their disability, injured firefighters will also continue to receive their regular service credits toward their pension fund.
- Sustained Benefits– If an injured firefighter or first responder is still unable to work when their paid disability ends after one year, they are still eligible to receive Temporary Total Disability (TTD) benefits under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. In Illinois, TTD offers tax-free weekly payments of two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly salary.
2. Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (PSEBA) – 820 ILCS 320/1
The Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (PSEBA) is another law that passed in 1997 that provides lifetime health insurance benefits from employers to firefighters, law enforcement, and other first responders in the event that they are severely injured or killed in the line of duty. Injuries sustained must be considered “catastrophic,” such as:
- Severe head or neck trauma
- All degrees of paralysis
- Spinal cord injury
- Injuries that reduce mental capacity, memory, or ability to perform everyday tasks
The injured worker’s spouse and any dependent children are also entitled to receive benefits. Children receive benefits until they turn twenty-six years old and require their own insurance premium. Spouses receive benefits for the remainder of their lives- unless they remarry.
In order to receive benefits under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, the catastrophic injury must have occurred under one of the following circumstances:
- the officer’s response to fresh pursuit;
- the officer or firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency;
- an unlawful act perpetrated by another;
- during the investigation of a criminal act;
When dealing with PSEBA and other similar laws, it is important to have an experienced attorney who can help manage claims on your behalf and protect your interest. The potential benefits are typically associated with the outcome of the applicant’s disability pension claim. In order to receive benefits, the applicant must have been awarded a line of duty disability pension.
3. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act (ILWCA) – 820 ILCS 305/1
Workers in almost every occupation in Illinois are entitled to receive “workers’ comp” if they suffer from a work-related injury or illness under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. Employees can fill out an application to receive compensation for medical expenses, temporary disability benefits, and an appropriate payout for a permanent disability.
In most cases, notice of the illness or injury must be given to the employer within 45 days of the accident. It is important to properly document the accident when applying for workers’ comp. The accident report should include the following information:
- The date of the accident
- Full description of the accident
- Injuries sustained from the accident
- Employee contact information
- Employer contact information
Injuries sustained over an extensive period of time as a result of performing job responsibilities can also be claimed under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. If there is a dispute between the employer and the employee, an arbitrator will hold a trial and issue a verdict within 60 days.
IWCA also provides a “no-fault” system. This means that the person responsible for the employee’s injury is typically irrelevant whether it is the employee, employer, or a co-worker. Benefits are consistent regardless of who is at fault. The main concern, rather, is whether or not the origin of the injury is truly associated with the job.
The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act provides three major benefits to injured workers:
- Payment of the medical expenses related to the work injury
- Payment of total temporary disability benefits (TTD) for the entire length of recovery time. This is typically two-thirds of the employee’s average, weekly tax-free salary
- Additional compensation for any permanent disabilities related to the work injury
Firefighters and police officers that serve in a city whose population is over 500,000 do not qualify for workers’ compensation. For example, firefighters that work for the city of Chicago follow a different set of laws that allow them to receive disability benefits.
The regulations and procedures involved with Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act claims can be complex and involve more legal implications. An injured firefighter should contact a knowledgeable lawyer immediately after encountering a work-related accident, injury, or illness.
4. Illinois Compiled Statutes (50 ILCS 135/12)
In Illinois, public employees have the right to run for public office as long as they are willing to give up their government job if they win the election. The reason for this is because there would be a high probability that they would be on a board that sets their own salaries. Firefighters are the only exception to this rule. When running for office, firefighters may not solicit votes or raise campaign funds while in uniform or on duty. Other than that, if elected, firefighters may service both positions.
This law poses its conflicts at times, however, the law still stands. Firefighters are allowed to sit on any village board meetings that discuss their firefighter contract, however, they may not vote on it.
5. Illinois Disability Pension Code – 40 ILCS 5/2-157
As pensions become less common in the private sector, firefighters, first responders, and other government workers are the few careers who will receive pensions from the Illinois Pension code. Injured or disabled workers who are no longer able to work still qualify to receive their pensions under the Illinois Disability Pension Code.
The Illinois Disability Pension Code provides benefits for disabilities with special provisions to firefighters, police officers, and first responders. Regardless of whether the injury occurs on or off-duty, injured government workers qualify to receive benefits. An injured firefighter or police officer would first need to apply for Disability Pension with the pension board. Next, the board conducts a hearing to decide if and how much compensation the injured worker is entitled to. Injuries that occur on duty generally allow the first responder to receive 65%-75% of their salary, while off-duty first responders are typically entitled to 50% of their salary.
Unlike the two previous laws, injured responders in Illinois are allowed to work both volunteer and paid jobs while receiving disability pension. In order to qualify for the full extent of the benefits, for applicants outside the City of Chicago, the injured employee must be present for three separate independent medical examinations (IMEs) conducted by three separate pension board-appointed physicians. This process helps to determine whether or not the employee is physically able to work.
Disability Pension Benefits: On-Duty vs. Off-Duty
Firefighters and first responders receive more benefits if they are injured in the line of duty as opposed to employees injured off-duty. Injured firefighters and police across the state of Illinois are entitled to tax-free benefits totaling 65% of their salary. Like the rest of the laws mentioned, the City of Chicago is its own entity when it comes to government employees. Standard Illinois laws do not always apply in the same way to Chicago employees. First responders in Chicago who become disabled, however, can claim 75% of their salary under the Illinois Disability Pension Code.
There are many times when firefighters and police officers in Illinois become disabled while off-duty, or cannot prove that the disability is a result from being injured while on duty. In this event, the injured worker can receive 50% of their salary if they can prove they can no longer function well enough to perform their job.
In both cases, on and off-duty injured firefighters can claim disability pension and still seek employment elsewhere if they wish.
The Pension Crisis in Illinois
Unfortunately, recent years have proved to be detrimental to the Illinois Pension system. Pensions are misbelieved to be “guaranteed income” or “promised money,” however, funds that are not earned simply cannot be distributed. In fact, the Pension system in Illinois is one of the worst in the country. More and more employees, including government employees, are steering away from pensions and are leaning toward the safer alternative- 401(k) retirement plans. There are three main factors that lead to the pension crisis in Illinois: exceedingly generous pensions offered by politicians, politicians’ misuse of pension funds, and the underfunding of pension plans year-after-year.
The only way to resolve this major financial crisis is to have all government workers move to a defined contribution plan- such as a 401(k) plan. In 2013, a new bill was passed to protect earned and unearned money that provided government workers with everything earned in their pension plan and start a 401(k) plan. This plan was proposed in hopes to result in credit reform. Since then, the Illinois Supreme Court is still debating on how to reconstruct the pension system. Illinois government workers today are concerned for the future holds for their pension plans.
6. One-time Death Benefit
In accordance with the Law Enforcement Officers, Civil Defense Workers, Civil Air Patrol Members, Paramedics and Firemen Compensation Act of 1995, all deaths on or after January 1, 2003, allow surviving beneficiaries to make a claim within one year of the death to the Illinois Court of Claims for Survivor Compensation. The surviving family member that files the claim must fill out the application and have a written statement from the Supervising Officer to the person who was killed in order to apply. The amount should be the rate according to the previous calendar year plus the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index which is adjusted for the cost of living at the first of each year.
If the firefighter has not designated a beneficiary, the benefits will be distributed to survivors in this order:
- Siblings (or nieces and nephews)
There will be no compensation paid if the first responder does not have surviving family members from the categories listed above.
Part III: The Illinois Firefighter Association
The Illinois Firefighter Association (IFA) is an organization created in 1889 that proudly works towards advancing the Fire Service. The IFA’s mission is to support Illinois firefighters by devoting their work to educating and training at local, state, and national levels.
Additionally, the IFA offers various membership levels that each represent specific departments and individuals so that everyone’s needs are met.
The History Of The IFA
The Illinois Firemen’s Association was established on January 8, 1889 by nine fire chiefs and five other representatives in Clinton, Illinois. Together they delegated twelve board members to hold annual meetings for the Illinois Firemen’s Association. The board members consisted of a president, nine vice presidents, a secretary, and a treasurer.
By 1899, there were 35 fire departments in Illinois. The IFA members had also adopted the Accident Indemnity Fund and the IFA’s Funeral Manual for conducting last rights to fallen firefighters.
The IFA gradually continued to expand and had a total of 155 different departments by 1905. The IFA published a newsletter called, “The Bulletin,” and began issuing an annual report called, “The Grey Book.” Additionally, the Illinois Office of State Fire Marshall was created in 1909.
The organization increasingly became more widely recognized. The first recruitment program was established in 1910 which led to the development of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) in 1918. The Legislation Committee was formed in order to monitor state and federal laws.
In 1924 at the National Fire Association Conference, the IFA helped organize a plan to attain proper fire protection and gear to firefighters in order to make them more capable in emergency situations. This plan also helped meet manpower shortages.
Shortly afterwards in 1925, the IFA helped establish the first fire service college in the United States- the Illinois Fire College (IFC). The college had 210 students enrolled in the first year and the college still exists today- except under the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI). In 1927, the IFA donated $10,000 to the college to build a smoke house and training tower. By 1929, the IFA had 290 departments.
The IFA took a severe hit during the Great Depression. Membership count, convention attendance, and overall participation dropped significantly. Fire departments everywhere lost considerable revenue.
The Illinois Fire College, however, continued to see an increase in enrollment. There were 341 students enrolled by 1933.
There was no annual convention from 1933-1945 due to the difficulties encountered during World War II. The IFA was putting all their efforts into helping fire departments scrape for equipment, manpower, and money. During the same time, the IFA worked towards passing three new laws:
- All firefighters must have a work limit of 60 hours per week
- Pensions should be paid to firefighters at the time of disability/retirement
- Eliminate the 10-year active service requirement pension eligibility
IFC membership count gradually increased, totaling 476 departments by 1946. IFC enrollment also continued to increase. By 1946, the college had 353 students enrolled with 43 courses.
The IFA became the largest fire service organization with 610 members by 1952. The annual conference which used to be free to attend evolved into a massive event with a fee of over $1,000 to be an exhibitor. The same year, the Illinois’ Mutual Aid System was created as well as new burn treatment centers.
By 1959, there were 700 IFA departments with over 40,000 individual members.
The Ladies Auxiliary of the Illinois Firefighters Association (LAIFS) became a regular donor to IFA projects.
Fire departments started regularly recruiting women during the Vietnam War when firemen were recruited to the Army or drafted to the war. In 1970, the IFA co-founded the Joint Council of National Fire Services Organization (JCNFSO). This organization developed a 23-subject curriculum for the Illinois Fire Protection Personnel and Education Commission in 1972.
The IFA also helped establish the National Fire Academy in 1975 and helped the University of Illinois earn their own NFA site. They also began supporting the National Volunteer Fire Council.
In 1980, the IFA became the Illinois Firefighters Association. By this time, the IFA was the key player in:
- Firefighter gear design
- Fire prevention programs
- Fire suppression strategies
- Safety standards
- Curriculum and certifications
- Recruitment conditions
- Communication improvement
- Conference program
- Membership services
The IFA continued to help firefighters gain representation from the state government and the U.S Congressional Fire Caucus. In addition to developing a leadership training curriculum, the IFA continued assisting firefighters in many other ways: fundraising for the Illinois Fallen Firefighters Memorial, co-sponsoring the LAIFA Illinois Children’s Burn Camp Auction event, supporting the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association Scholarship Fund, and much more.
The IFA celebrated their 110th year in 1999 and had thirteen committees. IFSI also continued to grow rapidly. They served 1,200 fire departments and 44,000 firefighters and other individuals.
In 2000, the IFA created a partnership with the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal and the Illinois Fire Service Institute. The “Vision 2000” plan was a plan initiated by IFSI to make all classes reimbursable and on a region-wide basis. New task forces were developed by the OSFM, such as the Terrorism Task Force and the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel. The IFA also got their website in 2000, www.illinoisfirefighters.org. Having a website proved to be a quick success after membership count spiked and there was much more communication between members and the IFA overall. The website also provided links and resources related to fire services.
Because of the events of September 11, 2001, the Illinois Firefighter Association, the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, and the Illinois Fire Service Instructors teamed together to provide all the extra help that they could. The IFSI launched the reimbursable “Cornerstone Program ” which allowed firefighters in-training alternative training options if they were not able to take advantage of certain training, such as the annual conference.
In 2003, the IFA sent letters to the President and Federal legislators asking to continue funding the Fire Act Grant. The President agreed to provide insurance benefits to the members. Activist Margaret Vaughn became a major voice for the Illinois Firefighters Association. Meanwhile, the IFA and IFSI continued to create additions to their DVD training program.
By 2006, over 50,000 more people in Illinois were trained through the DVD program since the last conference. The name of the DVD program, called “Down & Dirty Training,” now has its own conference- the “Down & Dirty Conference.” The state of Florida asked Illinois for consent to use the DVD training program in their state. This resulted in the University of Florida offering an on-line Fire Science degree. Soon after, the IFSI made a huge international expansion to allow their training DVDs to be in fire service libraries all over the world. Also in 2006, the Federal legislature passed the Fire Sprinkler Dormitory Revolving Loan Fund Act, the Arsonist Registration Act, and the Volunteer Firefighter Job Protection Act. Since there were large amounts of ethanol moving throughout processing plants, the IFA and IFSI devised a plan to include firefighter training for ethanol plant situations.
Over the last ten years, the IFA and IFSI have continued to add to the DVD training program. The Ethanol Training DVD led to its own website. New training videos on fire attacks and crude oil were launched shortly after. Self-extinguishing cigarette laws passed because of the number of residential fire deaths from cigarettes. The IFA proposed a bill that was later passed requiring college fraternities and sororities to have sprinklers in their building. The State Fire Code which followed this new law required sprinklers and smoke detectors in single and multi family homes.
Today the IFA continues to work towards improving membership enrollment and retention, recruitment, fundraising, database management and financial security for fire houses. New legislation continues to be passed in order to benefit and protect firefighters and other first responders, thanks to the Illinois Firefighters Association.
The Significance Of The Illinois Firefighter Association
In the earliest times of firemen, their service involved very little pay if any at all. Firefighters had the same desire to help people regardless of their second-hand uniforms and equipment, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. The first firemen in U.S. history were treated with little respect and were offered very limited support from the police force.
The evolution of the IFA helped all firefighters in Illinois and across the entire United States be awarded with the benefits and respect that they deserve. Between the IFA and the laws established to benefit firefighters, both firefighters and their families are being protected- especially in the event that they are injured or killed while serving the community.
The IFA offers its members several benefits:
- The Indemnity Fund– The IFA has an Indemnity Fund which pays $20 per day to firefighters that are injured in the line of duty. The maximum payout for the Indemnity Fund is $3,000. Firefighters killed in the line of duty receive an automatic $3,000 payment for their families. The department must be a member of the Indemnity Fund- current with payments to the IFA and valuations to the Indemnity Fund in order to be covered. The Indemnity Fund is controlled by strict by-laws that must be followed in order to receive proper coverage. An accident report must be filled out within 30 days of the incident and sent by certified mail to the Office of the Secretary Treasurer. The Indemnity Fund will quickly deny a claim that does not comply with regulations.
- Free Training Program DVD– The IFA and the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) worked together extensively to produce a series of training DVDs to send to every fire department in Illinois free of cost. The purpose of the training packages is to help firefighters provide the safest and most effective methods of protecting their community. The training videos are provided as a state-certified supplement to the fire house’s regular training program. The DVDs can also be used as part of a stand-alone training program. The DVDs can be requested by a fire department to be mailed to them or all the links can be downloaded for free from the IFSI website under the Resource Center page.
- Grant Program– The IFA donates several grants each year of up to $2,000 to departments for training equipment. Over the years, funding for the grants has diminished. The grants are now being shared about half as much of the time as in the past.
- All-State Membership– Members of the National Volunteer Fire Council receive membership for $15. Fire departments that enroll in the membership get enrollment fees waived. The EMS/Rescue Section can be joined for an additional $15 per person.
- Partnership with California Casualty– Firefighters in Illinois are provided with home, auto, and motorcycle insurance due to the IFA’s partnership with the California Casualty insurance company.
Why Firefighters Should Have An Attorney At Hand
The Illinois legislature has established several laws that benefit firefighters and their families. Being injured while performing their normal jobs allow firefighters to claim benefits under multiple laws. The problem is- what is a “normal” job? Most fires and emergencies are anything but normal. When applying for benefits, there are sometimes disputes with insurance companies over what actions were necessary and what actions were not. Additionally, the laws that protect firefighters and their families can be complex and confusing to some people. They also have several strict guidelines that must be followed.
It is not difficult for firefighters to claim the benefits they deserve, however, sometimes it can be a slippery slope getting everything worked out with insurance companies. Having an experienced and trustworthy attorney is beneficial so that firefighters can have someone to rely on that will get them through insurance hurdles- especially if they are newly injured or disabled.