Friday marked a victory for first responders and their families as Governor Tate Reeves signed House Bill 779, which ensures that families of law enforcement officers and firefighters who passed away due to contracting COVID-19 in the line of duty receive full state death benefits.
This legislation enhances the Law Enforcement Officers and Fire Fighters Death Benefits Trust Fund by allocating $5 million from the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund to support the families of first responders who lost their lives in service to Mississippi communities.
“While all our law enforcement officers and firefighters made countless sacrifices on our behalf throughout the pandemic, tragically, some made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe,” said Reeves. “That’s why this legislation is so important. Some gave everything for us – including their life – and it’s only right that we give something back to the families they left behind.”
The issue started off an explosive one as the families of law enforcement and firefighters who had died in the line of duty began trying to file for benefits and were told by the Department of Public Safety, who is responsible for managing the trust fund and disbursing the death benefits, that their loved ones weren’t eligible.
Federally, congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a law into being that would outline Covid-19 as a line of duty death under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act. The Mississippi statute governing law enforcement and firefighters line of duty death benefits was amended in 2016 to reflect the federal statute and to change with the federal changes.
Law enforcement began to rally and brought that issue to the attention of both politicians and the media.
Sheriff’s Association President Sheriff Greg Pollan of Calhoun County said after the concerns hit the media, he received calls from lawmakers of all positions telling him the issue would be taken care of.
Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing was instrumental in bringing the situation to light when he wrote a letter to Attorney General Lynn Fitch asking for an opinion on whether the state law modeled after the federal law should include death benefits to Covid victims’ families. Speaking from his office in Brookhaven on Friday, he expressed gratitude that the bill was passed.
“It’s been much needed for the families of the ones we lost during Covid,” Rushing said. “We lost two sheriffs and probably 20 or more other officers. I lost a jailer to it early on. I’m just glad to see it for the families.”
Reeves estimated on Friday that around 50 firefighters and police had died from Covid and Covid complications. The law is retroactive to cover those who have been fatally affected in the line of duty by the virus.