RENSSELAER, N.Y. — It took a trip to the nation’s capital, but the widow of former Assistant Fire Chief Micheal Falkouski will finally get the death benefits the federal government initially denied her.
It was after 5 p.m. Thursday when Susan Falkouski’s phone rang.
On the line was a woman from the Justice Department telling her the federal government had approved her late husband’s benefits — nearly three years after he had suffered a fatal stroke at a fire scene.
The call, she noted, came from the same person who had told her earlier the agency denied her claim.
“I’m surprised I didn’t faint. I was speechless, and I didn’t think to ask her one question,” said Falkouski, a retiree who will receive nearly $300,000 as a result of the favorable decision.
After her husband’s January 2005 death at the age of 59, Falkouski applied for benefits under a law passed specifically to help the families of emergency workers who die of a heart attack or stroke in the line of duty.
She was denied, however in part, because the government considered her husband’s racing to the scene of a fire in the middle a severe snowstorm a routine act. To qualify, applicants have to show that the person engaged in “non-routine stressful or strenuous physical public safety activity” within 24 hours of his or her death. Micheal Falkouski was a longtime fire department volunteer.
With the help of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who took up her case and the case of another local family, Falkouski became the public face of the nearly three-dozen families the government denied.
Falkouski traveled to Washington in September and testified at a Senate hearing where justice officials revealed they were changing the way cases are evaluated. The family of former Elsmere Fire Chief Kevin Shea, who died in January 2004, has also been denied benefits and is awaiting an appeal.
“They did a very bad thing and they were caught, and it’s because of the steadfastness of people like Mrs. Falkouski and Mrs. Shea that they got caught,” Schumer said.
Falkouski has insisted her fight was about more than her husband’s service. She said it was also meant to save other grieving families the same hardship and “hell.”
“Oh, he earned it,” she said of her husband. “He more than earned it, and I hope he knows.”