Following unanimous support in the Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill to expand benefits for firefighters who are diagnosed with certain cancers.
Supporters of the bill pointed to cancer dangers faced by firefighters, in part because of exposure to more burning chemicals and plastics than in the past.
“To our first responders and our firefighters, that 24/7/365 got our backs, this was our opportunity to tell them: we’ve got your backs,” said Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who doubles as state fire marshal. He was a key proponent of CS/CS/SB 426.
“There will be a system in place to allow them to have some benefits and coverage, in addition to their own health insurance. This will, moving forward, help us recruit and help those families have as much normalcy as they can as they fight cancer.”
Patronis was joined by a number of lawmakers at a news conference on Thursday – including state Sen. Ed Hooper, a 28-year veteran firefighter.
“To find out that two out of three firefighters will sometime in their life contract cancer; that scares me,” said Hooper. “I was proud to make that vote, I said on the Senate floor this may be the most important vote I would make in my career. I stand by that. These men and women deserve our protection, our love, and to cover their back.”
The new law takes effect July 1 and sets up a series of benefits to firefighters who are diagnosed with 21 types of cancers. It also would help them pay their bills while undergoing treatment with lump-sum payments of $25,000 upon diagnosis.
“I was very joyful; I’ve had a few friends, a few firefighters that have lost their lives,”
said Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor. “It really has shown the value that the state is placing in our firefighters; making sure that they have benefits with the increase risks.”
Cranor says currently, there are no firefighters in her department who have publicly expressed that they’re fighting job-related cancer. But she adds that may change.
“This law establishes that this is an occupational hazard – cancer – and it makes it a job-related injury, essentially. So with that, it is a mandatory reporting type of thing. But right now, any type of medical disability or anything that someone’s suffering from they do not have to tell their employer.”
Any way you slice it, says Cranor, firefighters – by the very nature of their job -- are “occupational athletes” who face the most extreme conditions.
“Wearing the gear, wearing the mask, crawling down the hallway in the heat to search for victims,” Cranor said. “In that heat, is this toxic soup of chemicals that firefighters are exposed to. And it absorbs through the skin; you inhale it. It is almost impossible to avoid exposure in some ways.”
The Florida League of Cities had opposed the bill, pointing to questions about how local governments would pay for the increased benefits. CFO/Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis concedes that remains to be figured out, but still blasted the League for its stance.
“The League of Cities had the audacity – the audacity – to send a letter urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the legislation providing this much-needed benefit,” Patronis said. “It’s not just wrong – it’s shameful.”
Patronis is calling on every city in Florida not to stand with the League of Cities, but instead stand with the state’s firefighters.
“Our communities – 24/7/365 – are contained, protected, sustained by these incredible men and women,” said Patronis. “But if you think about it a second, you can’t have good schools; you don’t have prosperity, you don’t have job growth unless you have a robust safety net working behind the scenes.”
Nationwide, 70 percent of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in 2016 were cancer-related. With the signing of this legislation, Florida joins 45 other states that provide a cancer benefit to their first responders.