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Guest Opinion: Comprehensive cancer coverage for firefighters a key first step

July 31, 2019
By Heather L. Mazurkiewicz , North Fort Myers Neighbor

Discovering the fire profession and becoming a certified State of Florida firefighter in 2014 made the fight for cancer coverage very personal.

Along this journey, I was fortunate to be invited to join a national volunteer organization, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, that provided the opportunity for me to visit with firefighters and their families who have either lost the battle to occupational cancer, or been drastically impacted.

In September, the International Association of Firefighters that maintains a memorial recognizing fallen firefighters will add to its list 252 names of those who passed away in the United States during the previous year. Of those, 201, or 80%, have cancer associated with their deaths. Since 2002, 70% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths are attributed to cancer. Obviously, these statistics illustrate the grave epidemic we are facing in the fire profession.

Since 2015, the Florida Legislature has appropriated approximately $5,000,000 to the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center to study cancer in the fire service, specific to the State of Florida. The UM Firefighter Cancer Initiative has a primary goal to better understand the burden of cancer among firefighters and "identify novel, evidence-based methods for reducing risks." Boy, have they delivered. Their work has led to sweeping changes within the profession including the "Clean Cab Concept" that removes contaminated equipment from inside the cab of the fire apparatus to further reduce exposures firefighters have when riding in the trucks. The contaminated equipment is placed in other compartments, protecting the firefighter respiratory system from airborne carcinogens.

Further research validates that firefighters are exposed to carcinogenic compounds at every fire response scene. This discovery led to a change in the culture within the profession. Firefighters now stay on air (self-contained breathing apparatus or SBCA) from the initial attack, through the knock down of the fire and during overhaul or clean-up of the fire scene. Dirty gear, which was once a badge of honor, is now unacceptable, and firefighters are decontaminating on-scene. The decontamination process was once reserved only for hazardous material exposures. Now, due to the carcinogenic exposures that have been linked to brain, kidney, liver, esophagus and prostate cancers as well as non-Hodgkin's, lymphoma, mesothelioma and other diseases, firefighters in Florida and across the country are now deconning at the fire scene. These methods, in conjunction with accountability for firefighter physical fitness, abstinence from tobacco use and improved fire station and apparatus design, will carry us forward and assist with lowering the risk of hearing the words "you have cancer."

This year, Florida legislators approved comprehensive cancer coverage making Florida the 46th state to protect firefighters and their families from the occupational disease. The coverage was effective July 1 of this year. A form of this legislation had been proposed for nearly two decades in Florida, and we are thankful it has finally passed as an alternative to filing a workers compensation claim. The legislation provides career firefighters diagnosed with one of 21 listed cancers treatment through a group health insurance trust fund, a one-time cash payout of $25,000 and continuing health benefits for 10 years after the termination of employment. It is one of the most comprehensive coverages for firefighters in the country.

As a Florida firefighter and the assistant state director for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, I am grateful for the work of CFO Jimmy Patronis, Speaker of the House Jose Olivia and all the members of the Florida Legislature including our own Southwest Florida Delegation all of whom voted in favor of protecting firefighters. The work for this legislation came from all corners of the fire profession, and showed the positive effects of what happens when labor and administration unite to advocate for a good and just cause.

There are many questions surrounding the coverage, and details of the benefit will unfortunately need to work themselves out in the courtroom and throughout the rule-making process. I am hopeful, through time and education, that we can make this coverage stronger.

The work for Florida firefighters is on-going, and I am fortunate to travel the state and spend time with fire departments of all kinds and sizes. Whether small or large, volunteer or career or a combination, these fire departments all have a common willingness to change the culture and do whatever necessary to reduce firefighter exposure to the carcinogens so they never have to hear the devastating words "you have cancer."

On behalf of all Florida firefighters, I say thank you for this benefit. For the past several years, my single focus was to support the passage of this coverage. Now, my focus is to ensure no firefighter ever has to use it.

- Heather L. Mazurkiewicz, IOM

Firefighter Cancer Support Network, Assistant State Director for Florida

North Collier Fire Rescue

Public Education Information

North Collier Professional Firefighters Local 2297



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