Fire officials urge Cuomo to sign cancer legislation

Members and leaders of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs and the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York held a public meeting at the Port Washington Fire Department on Sept. 27 to call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation that would provide medical coverage for volunteer firefighters who suffer from certain types of cancer for which they are commonly diagnosed.

The legislation, would offer insurance coverage for those diagnosed with certain types of the desease. While both paid and volunteer firefighters face the same dangers, only paid firefighters are protected in the event of a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s long overdue,” said Jerry Brown, district supervisor of the Baldwin Fire Department. “We need this bill signed to take care of these guys when they get sick, [and] take care of their families if anything worse happens.”

The bill would expand existing coverage under the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit Law to include digestive, hematological, lymphatic, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast and reproductive cancers, and would provide a lump sum of $25,000 for any qualifying volunteer firefighter. It also would provide up to 36 months of disability benefits (at $1,500 per month) in the event that volunteer firefighter was unable to work because of his or her illness.

It also would provide a $50,000 death benefit for a volunteer firefighter’s family. “We’re talking about [long-term] exposure to carcinogens throughout their career,” Brown said. “There’s coverage for in-the-line-of-duty injuries, but sometimes when somebody gets cancer or respiratory problems from the carcinogens firefighters are exposed to from the day they [join the department], the insurance companies are reluctant to pay for it, saying ‘How can you tell it was from a fire?’”

New York has 110,000 volunteers in fire departments throughout the state, and 240 volunteers in Baldwin.

“We’re exposed to the same carcinogens,” Brown said. “There should be no distinguishing between career firefighters and volunteer firefighters. The fire doesn’t differentiate between them.”

In June, the bill unanimously passed both chambers of the State Legislature, and representatives of fire organizations throughout New York assembled to convince Cuomo to sign the legislation into law.

“The time has come,” said the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York president, Ken Pienkowski. “Thanks to the State Senate and Assembly, New York is on the cusp of providing its volunteer firefighters with the protection and help that they need.

“Governor Cuomo must immediately call for and sign this legislation into law. New York’s firefighters have waited long enough for a benefit enjoyed by firefighters in many other states,” Pienkowski said. “As volunteer firefighters, we risk our lives, sacrifice our time, and too often our health in service to our communities. We may have volunteered to fight fires, but we did not volunteer to get cancer.”

Firefighters are more likely to develop many types of cancer than the general population, beyond lung cancer, largely due to the high levels of carcinogens and other toxins found in burning buildings and hazardous environments. The dangerous byproducts of combustion that firefighters face on a daily basis include many chemicals and toxins absorbed directly through the skin. Even soot is on the list of the worst possible carcinogenic offenders, according to the International Agency on Research for Cancer.

“As a past chief of the Seaford Fire Department, I’m well aware of the day-to-day risks facing our volunteer firefighters,” said State Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat that represents Baldwin. “Firefighters’ service takes many forms of sacrifice, and it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that we are there for our volunteers when health needs arise.

“With this bill, we have the opportunity to better protect volunteers who may be facing a serious impairment to their health due to their firefighting service,” Brooks added. “Volunteer firefighters are always on call, and there to help when we most need them. I urge Governor Cuomo to immediately sign this legislation into law and look after those who have done so much to look after us.”