When Contract Firefighters Die, Uncle Sam Turns Away

'A horrible inequity,' says one mom

By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 19, 2013 10:43 AM CDT

(Newser) – When Caleb Renno died fighting a fire in 2008, his parents naturally sought federal death benefits for first responders. But Renno was a contract firefighter working for a private company, and the government said no way. It's a fine line that is the difference between a lifetime of financial security and scraping by, proving part-time firefighters aren't the only ones left out when it comes to survivor benefits. "It's just a horrible inequity," Renno's mom tells the New York Times. "These guys were doing some of the hardest firefighting there was, period. They were on the front lines."

There are some 11,500 contract firefighters—more than the 10,000 hired directly by the Forest Service each year—working for private firms across the country, the Times reports. They do the same work, often beside their government-employed counterparts. "The only difference is that if one of them dies, they’re not going to get benefits," Renno's mom says. Now families are taking up fights all their own. "These guys did their job," said one man seeking an appeal of his benefit application after his son, a contract firefighter, died on the job 10 years ago. "We’re going to push this all the way, as long as we can."

Firefighters light a back burn near Pine, Idaho while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14, 2013.
Firefighters light a back burn near Pine, Idaho while fighting the Elk fire Wednesday Aug. 14, 2013.   (AP Photo/Idaho Statesman, Kyle Green)
Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watch a growing wildfire that later killed 19 firefighters Sunday, June 30, 2013, including Andrew Ashcraft, who took the photo.
Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watch a growing wildfire that later killed 19 firefighters Sunday, June 30, 2013, including Andrew Ashcraft, who took the photo.   (AP Photo/Courtesy of Juliann Ashcraft)
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