Voting in the US House of Representatives to expand federal fire service services is seen as a step towards parity
WASHINGTON – Years after firefighters put out a blaze after the smoke cleared and the ash cooled, those who risked their lives to contain the blaze face another threat: cancer and cardiovascular disease, caused by smoke and heat.
government and academics studies have shown that firefighters are 9% more likely to develop cancer and 14% more likely to die from their exposure to smoke and toxic chemicals. That’s not the danger that firefighters and their families expect when they take the job. And federal law, however, does not account for this increased risk an invoice passed by the US House of Representatives, that would change.
“You never expect cancer as a firefighter’s wife,” said Audrey Watt, whose husband Matthew Watt died of esophageal cancer in March after nearly 10 years as a firefighter with an elite Forest Service unit.
“You’re expecting that call from the US Forest Service saying, ‘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 about.”
Although every state except Delaware has laws recognizing causation for the purposes of workers’ compensation claims, there is no such advantage for federal firefighters in the US Forest Service and other agencies.
“This is wrong and fundamentally unfair,” the bill’s main sponsor, US Rep. Salud Carbajal, a California Democrat, said in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The situation has also created a sense of injustice among firefighters and their families.
“It’s just not okay when they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry your husband has cancer, but that’s not our fault,'” Watt said. “Yes it is. Your job caused that.”
The US House of Representatives passed the law overwhelmingly on May 11, 288-131, more than two decades after its inception.
The bill would create a presumption that federal firefighters who have been diagnosed with 16 medical conditions, including several types of cancer, developed the conditions as a result of their firefighting jobs, making it easier to apply for and receive worker’s compensation. This is broadly similar to how almost every state handles cancer risk in firefighters.
“Assuming that those who have been disabled by serious illnesses contracted the disease while serving on firefighting operations ensures that these emergency first responders receive treatment and benefits that would not normally be covered,” said Rep Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska who was an original co-sponsor of the bill, said in a press release.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat who represents a county in northern New Mexico that’s home to the nation’s largest active fire, said inside the house that firefighters in her county have been battling smoke and toxic chemicals for months. Federal firefighters, who work alongside state and local firefighters, should receive the same benefits, she said.
First choice in 20 years
The vote in the House of Representatives marks a major step forward for a legislative effort that has stalled since its inception in 2001. It was reinstated every two years but had not received a vote in the House of Representatives until the last version of Carbajal.
A Notice Last month, the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs found that firefighters are at higher risk for certain diseases and called for expedited processing of federal labor compensation claims for firefighters.
Fire service advocates praised the measure but said codifying the benefit into law would be more significant and permanent.
“It has no legal force,” said Greg Russell, a government affairs representative at the International Association of Firefighters. “So the next government could come along and wipe that out right away.”
In the Senate, an accompanying measure will be sponsored by Delaware Democrat Thomas E. Carper and Maine Republican Susan Collins.
A spokesman for Carper said the senator “is working to get his bill included in the next Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee honors.” Carper is a past chair of that panel, which hasn’t planned its next markup. A spokesman for the committee did not respond to messages.
The bill received bipartisan support in Parliament. Bacon and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania were the original co-sponsors, and 71 Republicans voted to pass the bill.
As part of a last-minute amendment dealing with workers’ compensation claims involving lawsuits against third parties, the bill was made budget-neutral, potentially adding more Republican support. The bipartisan Budget Office of Congress estimated that the bill, as enacted, would have cost $22 million over 10 years.
But all 131 no votes on the floor came from Republicans, and a few objected during the debate.
Virginia Foxx, a senior Republican on the North Carolina House Education and Labor Committee, said the bill is broader than most state regimes and unfair to other federal employees.
“By emphasizing 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 exception to bar tobacco users from assuming their cancer was caused by workplace exposure.
US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she opposes the law because it comes too close to “Medicare for all,” a policy favored by some liberal Democrats to give every American access to federally funded care to provide health care.
Arkansas Republican senior Bruce Westerman on the House Natural Resources Committee said the bill’s language could be designed to exclude part-time and seasonal firefighters.
Russell said Westerman misrepresented how many workers would be covered by the law. Some workers who are not primarily firefighters and are dispatched to help in an emergency may not receive benefits, but seasonal and temporary firefighters who are sent to the front lines would.
“If you get to a crime scene in a US Forest Service or Department of the Interior fire truck, you’re covered,” he said. “If you show up on a brush truck, which is a pickup truck with a pump in the back and a fire hose, you’re covered. Because those are the things run by people who, you know, do it.”
“A First Step”
Federal firefighters, including those fighting increasingly larger and more dangerous fires in the West, face a variety of poor working conditions.
Matthew Watt was often away from home for weeks, and his team routinely “slept on the black,” Audrey Watt said, which meant camping in areas that had already burned down even as state and local crews got motel rooms.
The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Act enacted last year Increased payment for firefighters in the wilderness Starting from $13 an hour.
Still, Max Alonzo, a company representative with the National Federation of Federal Employees, said crews sometimes live in camps because they can’t afford housing in areas they’re supposed to protect.
“You are completely forgotten. They will not be treated as first responders,” Alonzo said. “There are so many problems, and this (suspected work-related illness) is one of them.”
Andrew Robinson, a former wilderness firefighter who served with the Oregon Department of Forestry for eight years, said the bill is important to make wilderness firefighting an attractive career.
In 2019, at age 32, Robinson was diagnosed with urothelial cell sarcoma, a type of bladder cancer. Paying for his medical care is “frustrating 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 a first step toward a much larger goal of making the firefighting industry a career industry on par with community firefighters.”