WASHINGTON – Years after firefighters put out the blaze, after the smoke rose and the ashes cooled, people who risked their lives to contain the fire face another danger: cancer and cardiovascular disease from exposure to smoke and heat .
Governmental and academic research showed that firefighters are 9% more likely to get cancer and 14% more likely to die from it due to exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals. This is not a danger that firefighters and their families expect when hiring. But federal law does not take this increased risk into account bill The US House of Representatives has decided to change that.
“If you’re a firefighter’s wife, you never expect cancer,” said Audrey Watt, whose husband Matthew Watt died of esophageal cancer in March after nearly 10 years as a firefighter in an elite forest service unit.
“You’re waiting for a call from the U.S. Forest Service that says, ‘I’m sorry we lost your husband while he was doing his job,'” she said. “Yes, he loved his job, but the job also gave him cancer, from which he could not prevent anything.”
Although every state except Delaware has laws that recognize causation in order to pay compensation to workers, there is no such advantage for federal firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.
“This is wrong and essentially unfair,” said Saloud Karbahal, a Democrat from California, the main sponsor of the bill, in the House of Representatives on May 11.
The situation has also created a sense of injustice among firefighters and their families.
“It’s just wrong when they say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry your husband has cancer, but it’s not our fault,'” Watt said. “Yes. Your work was the reason for this.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill by an overwhelming majority, May 288-131, May 11, more than two decades after it was first introduced.
The bill creates a presumption that federal firefighters, who have been diagnosed with 16 diseases, including several cancers, have arisen in connection with their work to put out fires, making it easier to file applications and receive compensation for workers. This is generally similar to how almost every state treats cancer risk among firefighters.
“It is thought that those who became disabled due to serious illnesses became infected while serving in the fire service will ensure that those emergency services receive treatment and benefits that are not normally covered,” said MP Don Bacon, a Republican from the state. Nebraska, who was the original co-author of the bill, said in a release.
Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez, a representative of the district in northern New Mexico, which is home to the largest active fire in the country, said on the floor of the House of Representatives that firefighters in her district will fight smoke and pesticides for several months. Federal firefighters, working alongside state and local firefighters, should receive the same benefits, she said.
The first vote in 20 years
Voting in the House of Representatives is a major step forward for legislative efforts that have waned since its first introduction in 2001. It was introduced every two years, but did not receive a vote in the House until the latest version of Karbahal.
A bulletin Last month, the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers ’Compensation Programs noted that firefighters are more at risk for certain diseases, and called for speeding up processing of federal workers’ compensation claims for firefighters.
Firefighters’ lawyers praised the action, but said the codification of the benefits in the law would be more meaningful and permanent.
“It has no force of law,” said Greg Russell, a spokesman for the International Fire Brigade’s government affairs. “So the next administration could come and destroy it immediately.”
In the Senate, the event is sponsored by Delaware Democrat Thomas E. Carper and Maine Republican Susan Collins.
A spokesman for Carper said the senator was “working to include his bill in the next markup in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.” Carper is the former chairman of this commission, which did not plan the next mark-up. A committee spokesman did not respond to reports.
The bill received bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. Bacon and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania were the original co-authors, and 71 Republicans voted to pass the bill.
Under a last-minute amendment that touches on workers ’compensation claims that include lawsuits against third parties, the bill has become budget-neutral, which may add more Republican support. The non-partisan budget office of Congress estimates the bill will cost $ 22 million over 10 years.
But all 131 voted without a vote from Republicans, and some objected during the debate.
Republican Virginia Fox of North Carolina, the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, said the bill is broader than most government regimes, and unfair to other federal workers.
“By nominating federal firefighters, this bill is not fair to postal workers with skin cancer or federal nurses with lung cancer,” she said.
She added that there should be an exception in the bill so that tobacco consumers do not have the right to believe that their cancer was caused by exposure in the workplace.
U.S. MP Marjorie Taylor Green, Georgia, has said she opposes the bill because it is too close to Medicare for All, a policy favored by some Liberal Democrats to give every American access to government-funded health care.
The Natural Resources Committee of the House of Representatives, which is ranked by Republican Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said the language of the bill could exclude part-time work and seasonal firefighters.
Russell said Westerman incorrectly described how many workers would be covered by the bill. Some workers, who are mostly non-firefighters and are sent to help in emergencies, may not receive assistance, but seasonal and temporary firefighters are sent to the forefront.
“If you arrive at the scene in a U.S. Forest Service or Department of the Interior fire truck, you are closed,” he said. “When you show up in a car that is a pickup truck with a pump on the back and a fire hose, you’re covered. Because these are the things that are run by people who, you know, do it. ”
“The first step”
Federal firefighters, including those battling growing and dangerous fires in the West, are dealing with a host of poor working conditions.
Matthew Watt was often away from home for weeks, and his team usually “slept in black,” Audrey Watt said, referring to camps in areas that had already burned down, even though state and local crews were given motel rooms.
However, Max Alonso, a business spokesman for the National Federation of Federal Employees, said crews sometimes live in camps because they cannot afford housing in areas they have to protect.
“They are completely forgotten. They are not treated as first service employees, ”Alonso said. “There are a lot of issues, and this (presumption of a work-related illness) is one of them.”
Andrew Robinson, a former wildlife firefighter for eight years at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the bill is essential to make wildfire firefighting an attractive career.
In 2019, at the age of 32, Robinson was diagnosed with urothelial cell sarcoma, a type of bladder cancer. Demanding payment for his medical care was “unpleasant and a lot of work,” he said. Even though his cancer is in remission, he still has thousands of dollars in medical bills a year, he said.
The bill, he said, “is the first step towards a much bigger goal of turning the wildfire industry into a career industry along with municipal fire departments.”