Another Firefighter Benefits Bill Readied for '19 Session
Creating new benefits for first responders dealing with job-related cancers is among the top legislative goals of Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis when the 2019 session kicks off in March.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firefighters are at a 15 percent higher risk of cancer compared to the general population. Nationwide, Patronis says, cancer was listed as the cause of death for 70 percent of firefighters dying in the line of duty in 2016.
“Things that are very harmful catch on fire; so the side effects of these particular elements become also part of the air that our first responders or firefighters are breathing in,” Patronis said. “Getting on their skins, touching their equipment.”
Doubling as the state’s Fire Marshal, Patronis is out with his wish list for the 2019 session which begins March 5 – including a bill that would provide a safety net for first responders, with an optional benefit to help them pay the bills while being treated for cancer.
“The time you’re away from work, and the deductibles that go along with cancer treatment, can be expensive,” said Patronis. “This is kind of like a ‘bridge plan’ where this benefit will be available to you to help you with the deductible needs and your loss of income needs while you’re getting your treatment.”
Among those who will be watching the bill’s progress — or lack of — is Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor, who says it appears the sponsors are now focusing on prevention and current health care needs, rather than some type of presumptive legislation.
“This may come with supplemental insurance or a rider for it; it could require that a city [or] a municipality carry additional insurance for a firefighter,” said Cranor. “These are all things that are up in the air and no one has anything other than that as far as what the bill is going to look like.”
Cranor does applaud the signing by President Trump last summer, of the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018,
“The Centers for Disease Control will be doing research that relates cancer to being a firefighter,” Cranor said. “This will build a registry by partnering with other firefighting organizations that will help us identify who these firefighters are [and] what they were exposed to.”
Three similar measures have been filed in the Florida Legislature in past years, to grant certain benefits to firefighters upon a cancer diagnosis. Supporters are oh-for-three. Cranor and other fire chiefs around Florida are hoping the fourth time’s the charm on a measure that highlights the special hazards of firefighting.
“Whether it’s a fire or a true hazardous materials situation, we have gear that protects us to a certain level,” says Cranor. “But then we’re faced with controlling the runoff from that gear; how we can clean that and how we can keep our firefighters away from those materials.”
Any measure coming out of the Legislature would also benefit the families of stricken first responders – who face myriad hardships when there’s a line-of-duty injury, illness or death.
“They’re ‘citizen-guardians’ of the community, the firefighters and police officers; all first responders are,” says Cranor. “So it is a difficult situation for families financially, particularly without any kind of presumptive, protective legislation.”
There are Pensacola-area firefighters who have developed work-related cancers. And Cranor says it’s becoming more of a problem because of the materials — plastics, microfibers, and other synthetics — which are now common in home construction.
“When it burns, it releases more toxins and chemicals than in the [1920s or 1930s] when you had cotton, or leather with cotton batting inside of your furniture,” said Cranor. “I think that the danger to come is just what we’re really about to face.”
Pensacola was among 4,200 fire departments nationwide last year who received kits to clean equipment after a fire from the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center, and funded by $1 million from the Firefighter Cancer Mitigation grant program.
“We have one of these kits on all our responding fire apparatus,” says Cranor. “Our firefighters are cleaning themselves on-scene; much like they’re at a hazardous material situation. They’re rinsing off all of those carcinogens and all of those toxic chemicals that end up on our fire gear.”
Until the mid-1990s, heart disease was the leading cause of firefighter deaths. But a study on first responders published last year by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine says “the burden of cancer” has significantly moved to the forefront.