NC’s Virginia Foxx opposes singling out firfighters for help
WASHINGTON – Years after firefighters extinguish a blaze, after the smoke has lifted and ashes have cooled, the people who risked their lives to contain the fire face another danger: cancer and cardiovascular disease resulting from exposure to smoke and heat.
Government and academic studies have shown firefighters are 9% more likely to develop cancer and 14% more likely to die from it, due to their exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals. That’s not the danger firefighters and their families anticipate when they take the job. And federal law doesn’t account for that increased risk, though a bill the U.S. House has passed would change that.
“When you are a firefighter wife, you never expect cancer,” said Audrey Watt, whose husband, Matthew Watt, died from esophageal cancer in March after nearly 10 years as a firefighter with an elite Forest Service unit.
“You expect that call from the U.S. Forest Service that says ‘I’m so sorry, we lost your husband while he was doing his job,’” she said. “Yes, he loved his job, but his job also gave him this cancer that he couldn’t do anything to prevent.”
Although every state but Delaware has laws that recognize a causal link for the purposes of workers’ compensation claims, there is no such benefit for federal firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.
“This is wrong and fundamentally unfair,” the bill’s lead sponsor U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, a California Democrat, said on the House floor Wednesday.
The situation has also created a sense of unfairness among firefighters and their families.
“It’s just not OK for them to be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry your husband has cancer but that’s not our fault,” Watt said. “Yes, it is. Your job is what caused that.”
The U.S. House passed the bill overwhelmingly, 288-131, on May 11, more than two decades after it was first introduced.
The bill would create a presumption that federal firefighters who are diagnosed with 16 medical conditions, including several cancers, developed the conditions because of their work fighting fires, making it easier to apply for and receive workers’ compensation. That’s broadly similar to how nearly every state treats cancer risk among firefighters.
“Creating the presumption that those who became disabled from serious diseases contracted the illness while serving in fire protection activities, ensures these emergency first responders will receive treatment and benefits that would normally not be covered,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who was an original co-sponsor of the bill, said in a release.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat who represents a district of northern New Mexico that is home to the largest active fire in the country, said on the House floor that the firefighters in her district would be battling smoke and toxic chemicals for months. The federal firefighters working alongside state and local ones should receive the same benefits, she said.
First vote in 20 years
The House vote represents a major step forward for a legislative effort that has languished since it was first introduced in 2001. It was reintroduced every two years but had not received a vote in the House until Carbajal’s latest version.
A bulletin last month from the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs noted that firefighters are more at-risk for certain illnesses and called for expedited federal workers’ compensation processing claims for firefighters.
Firefighter advocates praised that action but said codifying the benefit in law would be more significant and permanent. Read more