Legislature unanimously passes measure to help firefighters stricken with cancer

Empty boots
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/7/19-Empty boots, each with a card printed with the name of a firefighter who died from cancer. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

After fifteen years of trying, Florida firefighters finally got the Legislature to pass a measure Wednesday that aims to help them deal with the leading cause of deaths in the line of duty: cancer.

The Florida House and Senate each voted unanimously for a package that requires local governments to shoulder the cost of cancer care for firefighters. The bill now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature or veto.

Florida joins 44 other states which have passed legislation to address cancer in firefighters.

Sponsored by Miami Republican State Sen. Anitere Flores, the measure identifies 21 different cancers which studies have linked to certain chemical exposures. Instead of pursuing worker’s comp coverage, a firefighter diagnosed with one of the specified cancers would get a one-time cash payout of $25,000 and local governments would be required to cover the complete cost of treatments and provide disability and death benefits. The firefighters have to prove they have not smoked tobacco in the previous five years.

State Rep. Matt Willhite, a Democrat from Palm Beach who is a fire department captain, spoke on the House floor before the vote about how he’s watched too many colleagues get diagnosed with cancer and die.

“Two out of every three firefighters in the state of Florida will be diagnosed” with cancer, Willhite said.

Expensive treatments mean many firefighters and their families go broke battling the disease. And representatives for the firefighting community say that worker’s compensation insurance isn’t reliable or flexible enough to battle the complex diseases firefighters are contracting.

Firefighters are twice as likely to get testicular cancer and a rare cancer called mesothelioma that’s linked to asbestos exposure. They are also at higher risk for brain, prostate, skin, colon, and esophageal cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia,  according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

The cancers are linked to toxic chemicals released from modern building materials and furnishings – and not just in facilities with stockpiled hazardous materials. Every time they respond to a fire, firefighters wear respiratory gear to protect their lungs from smoke and fumes. But volatilized chemicals are insidious, clinging to equipment, uniforms, and skin. The soot that covers firefighters these days is deadly.

“Forty years ago, most of the structures were made of natural products,” Jim Tolley, president of the statewide Florida Professional Firefighters group, told the Phoenix in March. “We’re treating most fires like HazMat now.”

HazMat stands for hazardous materials – which, in these times, can be just about anything. Even substances that aren’t harmful in their normal state can turn deadly when ignited. Repeated, uncontrolled exposure, firefighters say, increases their risk.

The legislation also includes language to continue ongoing work by fire departments to cut toxic exposures.

In March, firefighters installed a haunting display outside the Capitol – hundreds of empty boots placed in the courtyard, each with a card bearing the name of the firefighter who died of cancer. Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat who represents Hillsborough County, said the display moved her.

“You all put your lives on the line every day to protect people like me,” Hart said. “There could be no amount of money that could compare to the lives you have saved and touched.”

 

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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