TX Firefighter’s Widow Battles for Benefits

The widow of a late Dallas firefighter is pushing the city to improve survivor benefits for first responders who die while they are not on duty.

Dallas firefighter Dave Walters.

Kristi Walters said her husband David endured many “close calls” in his two decades as a Dallas firefighter.

But David Walters, 49, last year didn’t die at a blaze or a car-wreck scene or at the fire station; he collapsed suddenly after playing a little football with his family the day after Thanksgiving.

And the fact that David didn’t die in the line of duty created major financial ramifications for his family.

Days after his death, the city of Dallas notified Kristi, 52, that she and her three teenage sons couldn’t stay on the city’s health insurance plan.

The grieving widow was stunned. The city referred her to COBRA health insurance — which would’ve more than doubled her husband’s health insurance premium to about $1,100 a month. Kristi, who makes roughly $20,000 a year as a part-time fitness instructor, was set to receive survivor benefits from her husband’s pension, but she said COBRA alone now eats up most of that.

If David had died on the job, then the Walters family would have qualified for line-of-duty death benefits through the city of Dallas, which would include continuation of health-insurance benefits.

Kristi is now pushing for City Hall to improve survivor benefits for first-responders who die while still on active duty. Her plight has support from the city’s largest firefighter group and even got the attention of mayoral candidates this spring.

A change in the policy might have major implications. But Kristi said what happened to her is an injustice for her husband and other first-responders.

“He gave his life for this city. You need to recognize their service was a sacrifice,” Kristi said. “This policy change is much bigger than me.”

Childhood sweethearts

Emotionally, Kristi is still reeling from David’s death. The two met when Kristi was 13 and David was 11. They were platonic friends for years and began to date after they finished college.

A few years after they were dating, David decided to become a firefighter. In April 1999, he was hired. Kristi helped him study with note cards while he was in the academy.

Kristi nicknamed him “Fireman Dave.” She said he looked like a firefighter character out of a children’s book. David was broad-shouldered, tall with a big smile. He walked and talked like a firefighter and was good with people, she said.

“He adored being a fireman,” she said.

The two had three children together. And as the family grew, Kristi quit her job as a middle school teacher to raise them. Walters never made a ton of money; he was paid $28.55 an hour in 2018.

Even though life was hectic raising three boys, the couple — who made their home in the White Rock area — kept a tradition of “Date Dave Wednesdays,” often going to the movies or lunch to spend time together when David wasn’t at the fire station.

But now the middle of the week is usually filled with tears.

“Date Dave Wednesdays are lonely days,” she said.

Thanksgiving tragedy

For Thanksgiving last year, the Walters rented a lake house in a small town about an hour and a half northwest of Austin. More than a dozen family members filled the house with food and laughter.

As the sun was setting the day after Thanksgiving, David played football with his sons and nephews. He went inside for a drink of water and sat outside with his family. A few moments later, he suddenly collapsed in a chair. He died in Kristi’s arms.

“It was seconds. It was that fast,” Kristi said. “He didn’t have time to be afraid for anything.”

He hadn’t complained of pain. Doctor visits and regular physicals, required by the department for fire engineers, showed no issues. He exercised regularly, running to and from work.

His fellow Dallas firefighters drove down south to be with the family. Austin and Dallas firefighters escorted his body to Dallas days later.

In a eulogy, his pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church compared him to TV’s Mr. Rogers: “helper, kind, friendly, compassionate, committed, caring.”

“These attributes are not innate to all people,” he said.

Kristi said she didn’t have time to mourn David’s death before the nightmare would turn into more months of challenges.

It took months for her to receive David’s death certificate. The rural area where he died did not have a medical examiner, so Travis County handled his autopsy.

When Kristi received the certificate in April, she said his death was ruled a sudden cardiac death and listed pulmonary congestion and edema as underlying reasons.

Kristi was unable to apply for life insurance or receive her husband’s last paycheck until she received the death certificate. Now, Kristi plans to apply for state benefits for worker’s compensation, but the paperwork is often extensive and benefit claims aren’t processed quickly.

At the city level, Kristi said that Dallas “could do what is right” and lead the nation with the best benefits for firefighters.

“Whether he died at the station or whether he died at Llano County, he served for 20 years,” Kristi said.

No matter what, Kristi said, "active-duty death should get the same continuation of benefits as line-of-duty death.”

Health care politics

City officials have met with Kristi and Dallas mayoral candidates Jason Villalba and Scott Griggs said her story represents the need for better first-responder benefits.

Although he didn’t make the runoff, Villalba, a former Republican state representative, said he still wants to see Dallas take care of Kristi and future families like hers.

“It’s clearly an oversight in the policy,” Villalba said. “I don’t think any entity, or city would not be interested in helping a woman if they lost their spouse.”

Four-term City Council member Scott Griggs, who is in the runoff for mayor against state Rep. Eric Johnson, has campaigned for improved benefits for first responders. Griggs, who received the Dallas Fire Fighters Association’s endorsement, said Kristi’s situation “is tragic” and that the city should “let the insurance continue at the active duty rate.”

“It’s what the city of Dallas should offer to police officers and firefighters who are fully vested in the city,” Griggs said.

Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune, who oversees public safety deferred questions about Walters’ situation to the city’s public affairs office.

In a prepared email statement, a spokesperson for the City of Dallas said any “loss of life is heartbreaking ” and that Kristi’s story “compels us to take a closer look at policies currently in place to ensure we are working in the best interest of our employees and their families.”

“The City of Dallas is still deeply saddened by the loss of David Walters. We continue to send our sincerest condolences to the Walters family,” the statement said.

A Dallas city memo from late March sent to members of the Public Safety & Criminal Justice Committee detailed the issues in Kristi’s case. A spokeswoman from the city manager’s office said council asked that an analysis be completed and brought back to the committee.

The date for the analysis to be completed is still pending, the statement said.

The trouble is that city officials could have to apply the same standard to any employee on its health insurance who dies. That means it might not be as simple as making an exception.

But Kristi feels the rules could be applied narrowly to first responders.

Dallas Fire Fighters Association President Jim McDade said he’d love to see all city employees receive the same benefits, but that firefighters and their welfare is his priority.

In Walters’ case, he said, canceling the family’s plan was wrong. McDade said Kristi should be able to stay on the city’s health insurance plan until Kristi is Medicare eligible.

“Her husband had 20 years on the department and was eligible to retire, but had not … We just don’t feel that’s the proper way to take care of police officers and firefighters,” McDade said.

The pension benefits "really isn’t much to live off," McDade said.

“The reality is that she has three sons to take care of. One going to college and two in high school, so she’s got a lot on her plate.”

Moving ahead

Kristi breaks down to tears when she thinks about the long-term well being of her family and what’s ahead for them. Life will be drastically different now.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she says as the tears begin to swell in her eyes. “I’m looking at what we are spending and what’s coming in.”

She looks at the health insurance expense fix as an important “baby step” to taking care of her family.

“That’s a lot of my income,” she said. “That’s groceries for us that I don’t need to be spending on health insurance.”

Kristi said she’s frustrated by the city’s slow response. She said her husband never failed to promptly respond to tragedies across the city. And, now, his family is in need of help from the city.

“Fireman Dave wouldn’t delay,” she said.

___ (c)2019 The Dallas Morning News Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Credit: Facebook/Kristi Walters

Dallas firefighter Dave Walters.

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