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COVID-19 Death of N.J. Firefighter-EMT Ruled as Line of Duty Death

NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

The death of a Passaic firefighter from complications with the coronavirus was formally declared an “in the line of duty” death by the state pension board, opening up lifetime benefits for his widow and their two children.

More than a month after 33-year-old Israel “Izzy” Tolentino Jr. died from complications with the coronavirus, the state pension board ruled his death was in the "line of duty,” which entitles his widow Maria Vazquez and their daughter Ailani, 10, and son Israel III, 8, to pension and health benefits, said Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost.

The decision by the state pension board will allow for Vazquez to receive more than 60 percent of Tolentino’s most recent salary, said Passaic Mayor Hector Lora. It will also provide health insurance to both of Tolentino’s children until they turn 26 and health insurance for life for Vazquez, said Vazquez and Trentacost.

The decision, rendered May 11 at a board meeting, is a small consolation for Vazquez, who is thankful that her husband’s work will help protect and care for the family they started for years to come, even in his death.

“That’s what he worked hard for when he was alive,” Vazquez said. “Everything he thought of was for the family to be taken care of. I am happy that everything he worked for was not in vain.”

The process of securing benefits for Tolentino’s family took time and investigative work from the Passaic Fire Department, said Trentacost. Although Trentacost declared Tolentino’s death “line of duty” in a press conference just hours after Tolentino died, the department needed to prove it to the pension board.

“When a tragedy hits like this, as chief and as a department, we have to do the best for the family,” Trentacost said. “But we have to make sure it’s accurate and we can back up our proof. The investigation started immediately.”

Proving Tolentino’s death was in the line of duty had investigators following his final days responding to calls as a Passaic firefighter, a lifelong dream of his. Earlier in the pandemic, the investigation—and fire department calls—was stymied by a lack of information, Trentacost said.

“The HIPAA law, until the state Attorney General allowed fire chiefs the information, we had no clue what addresses were in question,” Trentacost said. Initially, firefighters were responding to houses unaware if a resident had tested positive for COVID-19. And aside from the turnout gear that firefighters wore to calls, firefighters were not taking additional precautions into mid-March, the chief noted.

Working with the health department and information later made available to fire chiefs, investigators were able to trace Tolentino’s likely exposure to COVID-19 to a March 14 call on a gas rupture and gas leak at a house on Broadway, Trentacost said.

Tolentino, along with other Passaic firefighters, flitted in and out of different buildings to help evacuate residents and check for gas levels. Occupants of several of the apartments that Tolentino entered ended up testing suspected positive for COVID-19, Trentacost said.

Along with working as a firefighter, Tolentino was an EMT and volunteered at the city’s office of emergency management, his widow said. When he wasn’t doing any of that, he would volunteer to help the homeless.

Tolentino’s round-the-clock sense of duty had Mayor Lora wondering when he wasn’t on duty and prompted him to advocate for the line of duty death designation.

“On top of everything that the family would be dealing with, his wife and two children, the idea that they would not be taken care of was unacceptable,” Lora said.

“They’re going through enough,” the mayor added. “And we shouldn’t have left it on their shoulders to try to fight the system. Because navigating the red tape and all of the bureaucracy that’s involved in things like this is hard enough for those of us who are privy to the information, let alone for family members of lay-individuals.”

The pension board’s decision comes as more and more front-liners contract the coronavirus and succumb to its effects. Hundreds of New Jersey police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders have contracted the virus since the outbreak.

Unlike many essential workers, first responders are often required to come in close contact with people potentially infected with the virus. Several law enforcement officers told NJ Advance Media they are being forced to report to police headquarters, even those who are pregnant.

On Monday, Glen Ridge Police Officer Charles “Rob” Roberts, deemed the “unofficial mayor” of the borough, succumbed to COVID-19.

“We often say that our first responders are heroes,” said Lora. “Sometimes our heroes need heroes. And we needed to advocate on their behalf.”

Several lawmakers have taken up the task of pushing legislation to provide for families of first responders who died from COVID-19. Last month, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-9th Dist, introduced the Public Safety Officer Pandemic Response Act (H.R. 6509), which would provide death and disability presumption for public safety officers who contract COVID-19.

That bill will be included in the HEROES Act, unveiled Tuesday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, Pascrell said in a statement. The HEROES Act would provide money to help pay the salaries of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, schoolteachers and other state and municipal employees.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed the Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act of 2020 (S3607), introduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, which would also extend public safety officer death benefits to first responders whose death is caused by COVID–19.

“Our firefighters, police officers, EMTs and other emergency services personnel risk their lives to keep us safe, and face significantly increased hazards during this pandemic,” Booker said in a statement. “A staggering number of public safety officers have already lost their lives to COVID-19, and we must make sure that their families are supported when they face unimaginable loss—and that’s exactly what this bill does."

For Vazquez, the help that has arrived and the help that may be coming is welcome and serves to live up to Tolentino’s desire to always provide for his family. But, as the days distance the family from the moment Tolentino succumbed to the illness, she does not want him to be remembered for how he died. She wants the husband she met in church years ago to be remembered for the man he was.

“I don’t want him to be remembered for coronavirus,” Vazquez said. “I want him to be remembered by the good that he was. How selfless he was. How he served others, even without a uniform.”

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