Elms College Program Helps EMTs, Firefighters Plan for the Worst

CHICOPEE — First responders are the ones who run into burning buildings and rush to help during natural disasters and other emergencies. Because they work in dangerous conditions, there’s a chance at the start of every shift that they won’t see the end of it. And, more often than not, they don’t have a will.

First responders often don’t think about the high risks inherent in their work, or the need for an estate plan in the event of their demise. It might sound paradoxical, but it’s true. But Caroline Murray, director and associate professor of Paralegal and Legal Studies at Elms College, is working to change that. Every spring, she hosts a workshop at the college, allowing students in her Wills class to offer free, attorney-supervised will-writing services to local heroes.

The event is associated with the Wills for Heroes Foundation, which originated after 9/11, when the lack of estate planning among most first responders became clear. The U.S. military offers soldiers free estate-planning documents — especially wills — but local first responders must pay for their own, and they can be expensive. “And, understandably, this is a topic most families do not want to think about, never mind discuss,” Murray said.

Wills for Heroes was founded in 2007 to create and execute free wills for first responders. Attorneys from around the country volunteer to participate in these events. This year, Murray and her class of about a dozen students will work with the West Springfield Fire Department. She and her class wanted to help local first responders, cementing community relations and also allowing them to focus on a specific group of heroes each year.

It’s an important service to offer firefighters. For example, in the U.S., 106 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2013, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Three-quarters of them died from emergency-related activities, half died from fire-scene activities, and 14 died while returning from or responding to emergencies. These deaths were unexpected and sudden, and if the firefighters died without wills in place, the families could have ended up with miles of red tape to walk while grieving.

It’s important to Murray’s students, too. Law firms generally prefer to hire paralegals with experience, she pointed out, so students must earn such experience in the classroom, or through voluntary clinics or internship opportunities. “The event helps paralegal students gain the valuable experience they need by creating and executing wills under the supervision of an attorney.”

It also forces them out of the classroom comfort zone and get a real, hands-on taste of estate planning, she added. “Several students [in previous years] claimed this was their favorite class because what they did made a real difference.”