Preparing for the worst
By Maveric Vu and Jamie Thompson
AP File Photo/Michael Caulfield
Firefighters salute during a memorial service for three Los Angeles firefighters and paramedics who died in a 1998 helicopter crash.
In 2004, Arizona EMT Tammy Mundell, 29, died while on duty after her ambulance was side-swiped by a truck. She was eight months pregnant at the time and left behind a husband and five children.
Mundell’s death continues to resonate among her peers today. For Southwest Ambulance paramedic Alexa Bathe, important questions began to arise for which she had no answer: Who would take care of her finances and her estate? Who would take care of her children should she die while in the line of duty?
“I never even thought about it,” Bathe, 44, said. “Young people usually don’t think they’re going to die…but because of the field that we’re in, we see it everyday.”
Despite the dangerous nature of being a first responder, many firefighters and EMS professionals do not leave wills behind. Earlier this year, it was reported that several of the nine firefighters killed in the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, S.C., in June had not drafted wills.
But help is at hand for first responders across the country. For the past six years, the Wills for Heroes program has been offering free legal help to emergency services personnel in writing their wills and other legal documents.
Co-founder Anthony Hayes said he was shocked after discovering the number of first responders without wills.
"I couldn't understand how somebody whose job involves literally putting their lives on the line didn't have something in place," he said.
Hayes launched the initiative in his home state of South Carolina in the wake of 9/11.
Having previously worked in the World Trade Center, the terrorist attacks had a particularly profound effect on the lawyer, a partner at major national law firm Nelson Mullins Riley.
He e-mailed the City of Columbia (S.C.) Fire Department, asking what lawyers could do to help it. After word came back that many of the firefighters did not have wills, Hayes decided to begin offering free estate planning services and launched the Wills for Heroes initiative.
Since its inception, more than 6,000 wills have been drafted at no charge for firefighters, police officers, EMTs and corrections officers. The cost of drafting a will would normally cost as much as $1,000.
"We make our livelihoods out of the community, so this is our way of giving something back to the community," Hayes said.
"The foundation itself does not provide legal services; we are the facilitators to help each state get the program up and running. Our goal is to get lawyers and first responders together and make it happen."
The drafting procedure is relatively simple. The Wills for Heroes Foundation arranges for local attorneys to visit the department station, training facility or headquarters, armed with laptops and the relevant programs and legal documents.
Prior to the meeting, the first responder needs to complete an estate planning questionnaire in which they must indicate who they want to appoint as guardian for their children, who will be the executor of their will, and what their wishes are in case they are in a terminal condition, irreversible coma or persistent vegetative state.
At the meeting itself, the first responder meets with a volunteer attorney who inputs their information from the estate planning questionnaire. A customized application merges the first responder's information into the state-specific estate planning documents and creates a will, living will and powers of attorney.
The attorney reviews the draft estate planning documents with the first responder to make sure they understand and agree to the plan. Once the documents are finalized, they are signed, witnessed and notarized at the event so they are effective immediately. The whole process takes about 30 minutes.
Jeff Jacobson, who expanded the project with Hayes in 2004, making it a nationwide foundation, said that he believed there are two main reasons why so many first responders do not have wills.
"I think that most responders are heroes and are fearless," he said, "and to be these things, I think you have to have an emotional component that nothing is going to happen to you.
"These are the people running into the building when we are all running out or doing the 3 a.m. traffic stop, not knowing who or what is in the car. If you acknowledge the fact that something might happen to you, you might not run into that burning building."
In addition, Jacobson said he finds many young first responders believe that because of their age and lack of assets, there is no point in having a will.
"It may well be the case that you don't have anything, but it may not be true if something does happen to you," Jacobsen said, referring to memorial funds such as those set up in Charleston after the firefighter deaths.
In Phoenix, more than 300 members of the fire department took part in a Wills for Heroes session earlier this year.
Similar success was found during a session for paramedics and EMTs in Tucson, according to Southwest Ambulance Communications Director Josh Weiss.
“Whether you are getting into an ambulance, fire truck or police car, you still don’t expect something to happen,” Weiss said.
“[But] more and more people are asking, ‘What if?’ within the EMS family, whenever a co-worker has an accident.”
Concerns about her family’s future motivated Bathe to participate in a Wills for Heroes session. She and her husband had no plans drafted in the event of her death.
“They brought up questions about how I wanted things to be,” she said. “It opened up my eyes to all the different things a will could offer. It’s not just who gets my stuff. A will is really for when you’re alive.”
Through the Wills for Heroes Foundation, Bathe worked with attorneys to answer the tough questions necessary to draft a will that would protect her husband and five children should she die.
“It’s given me peace of mind,” Bathe said.
“The last thing I want is to have them make these decisions, when they might not be in the right state of mind. It takes a load off your family.”
• For more details on the Wills for Heroes Foundation or to arrange an event at your department, go to WillsforHeroes.org.