WASHINGTON — Years after firefighters extinguished a blaze, the smoke cleared and the ashes cooled, the people who risked their lives to contain the blaze face another danger: cancer and cardiovascular disease resulting from exposure to smoke and heat.
Government and university studies have shown that 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. This is not the danger firefighters and their families expect when they take to the job. And federal law does not account for this increased risk, even though a bill passed by the US House would change that.
“When you’re a female firefighter, you never expect cancer,” said Audrey Watt, whose husband, Matthew Watt, died of esophageal cancer in March after nearly 10 years as a firefighter. firefighter in an elite Forest Service unit.
“You expect that call from the US 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 all states except Delaware have laws that recognize causation for the purposes of workers’ compensation claims, there is no such benefit for federal firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies. .
“It’s wrong and fundamentally unfair,” the bill’s lead sponsor, U.S. Representative Salud Carbajal, a California Democrat, told the House on Wednesday.
The situation has also created a sense of injustice among firefighters and their families.
“It’s just not acceptable for them to be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry your husband has cancer, but it’s not our fault,'” Watt said. . Your job is what caused this.
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill, 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 multiple cancers, developed those conditions as a result of their firefighting work, making it easier to apply for and receive workers’ compensation. It’s broadly similar to how nearly every state treats cancer risk among firefighters.
“Creating the presumption that those who have become disabled by serious illness contracted the disease while serving in fire protection activities, ensures that these emergency first responders will receive treatment and benefits that would not otherwise be normally not covered,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska who was an original co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat who represents a district in northern New Mexico that is home to the nation’s largest active fire, told the House that firefighters in her district will be battling smoke and toxic chemicals for month. Federal firefighters working alongside state and local firefighters should enjoy 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 has been reintroduced every two years but had not received a vote in the House until Carbajal’s latest draft.
A bulletin last month from the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs noted that firefighters are at higher risk for certain illnesses and called for expedited processing of federal workers’ compensation claims for firefighters.
Firefighters’ advocates welcomed the action, but said codifying the benefit into law would be more meaningful and permanent.
“It doesn’t have the force of law,” said Greg Russell, a government affairs representative with the International Association of Fire Fighters. “So the next administration could come in and wipe that out immediately.”
In the Senate, a complementary measure is sponsored by Delaware Democrat Thomas E. Carper and Maine Republican Susan Collins.
A Carper spokesperson said the senator is “working to include his bill in upcoming Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee tagging.” Carper is a past chair of this panel, which has not scheduled its next markup. A spokesperson for the committee did not respond to messages.
The bill drew bipartisan support in the House. Bacon and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania were the original co-sponsors and 71 Republicans voted to pass the bill.
Under a last-minute amendment dealing with workers’ compensation claims that involve third-party lawsuits, the bill was made budget-neutral, perhaps adding more Republican support. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill as introduced would have cost $22 million over 10 years.
But all 131 foul votes on the floor came from Republicans, and some raised objections during the debate.
The House Education and Labor Committee, ranking Republican Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, said the bill was broader than most state plans and was unfair to other federal workers .
“By singling out federal firefighters, this bill is not fair to postal workers with skin cancer or federal nurses with lung cancer,” she said.
She added that the bill should include an exemption to make smokers ineligible for the presumption that their cancer was caused by occupational exposure.
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she opposed the bill because it came too close to “Medicare for all,” a policy favored by some liberal Democrats to give every American access to government-funded health care.
The House Natural Resources Committee, ranked Republican Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said the bill’s wording could be changed to exclude part-time and seasonal firefighters.
Russell said Westerman mischaracterized the number of workers who would be covered by the bill. Some workers who are not primarily firefighters and who are sent to help in an emergency may not receive the benefit, but seasonal and temporary firefighters sent to the front line would.
“If you show up on the scene with a US Forest Service or Department of the Interior fire truck, you’re covered,” he said. “If you show up on a sweeper truck which is a van with a pump in the back and a fire hose, you are covered. Because these are things that are exploited by people who, you know, do.
“A first step”
Federal firefighters, including those battling increasingly large and dangerous wildfires in the West, face a host of poor working conditions.
Matthew Watt was often away from home for weeks and his team ‘slept in the dark’, Audrey Watt said, meaning camping in areas that had already burned down, even though national and local teams had motel rooms .
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure law signed into law last year raised the pay of wildland firefighters from $13 an hour.
Still, Max Alonzo, a trade representative for the National Federation of Federal Employees, said crews sometimes live in encampments because they can’t afford housing in the areas they’re supposed to protect.
“They are completely forgotten. They are not treated as first responders,” Alonzo said. “There are so many problems, and this one (presumption of occupational disease) is one of them.”
Andrew Robinson, a former wildland firefighter for eight years with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the bill was important in making wildfire fighting an attractive career.
In 2019, at the age of 32, Robinson was diagnosed with urothelial cell sarcoma, a type of bladder cancer. Seeking to be paid for his medical care was “frustrating and labor intensive”, he said. Although his cancer is in remission, he still has thousands of dollars in medical bills a year, he said.
The bill, he said, “is a first step toward a much larger goal of making the wildfire industry a career industry on par with municipal fire departments.”