Firefighters benefits clears first House committee

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - Florida firefighters are celebrating a partial victory Thursday. After 15 years of trying to get nearly two dozen cancers recognized as a leading occupational hazard, lawmakers have taken a big step toward agreeing.

The legislation will make it easier to keep working while treating cancer.

One by one, firefighters who got cancer on the job told their stories.

“I’ve been diagnosed with occupation cancer twice,” said Jazz Zombo, who worked as a firefighter for 17 years.

“I never smoked a cigarette in my life,” said retired firefighter Jay Post.

Clay County resident Tracy McKay told lawmakers she is about to lose her firefighting husband.

“The doctor's words exactly were, 'We do not fight this cancer. We’ll try to buy your husband some time to spend with your children,'” said McKay.

Cancer is already covered under a firefighters health plan, but because it isn’t considered a work-related injury, there is no time off for doctors. Sick and vacation time are quickly burned.

“The financial burden on families is immeasurable,” said McKay.

But mandated changes in leave policy and a $25,000 one-time payment to cover out of pocket costs could ease the burden.

“Seventy percent of the deaths that occur in the line of duty for firefighters are cancer-related,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal, Jimmy Patronis.

The League of Cities, which has blocked the legislation over cost concerns, got raked over the coals.

“What is the value of a life?” Representative Wengay Newton asked Amber Hughes, who testified on behalf of the League.

“Mr. Chairman, I am not an actuary. I prefer not to answer that,” replied Hughes.

The league was told flatly, “just figure it out” by Representative Nick DeCiglie. The bill passed unanimously.

Afterward, Tracy and her husband Jeremy were near tears. Asked how it felt knowing his career as a firefighter led to developing terminal cancer, Jeremy responded bluntly.

“It’s my job, you know, it's what I love to do,” he said.

Over the last 10 years, as the risks have become more clear, best practices have been put in place and that’s protecting newer firefighters. But for firefighters on the job longer than ten or 15 years, the risk remains.

The legislation has more than 80 cosponsors in the House, virtually guaranteeing it will pass.