On December 13, 2015 a Sun Sentinel Editorial titled, “Alarm bells about firefighter legislation” provided a good review of the employer and worker compensation insurer concerns with this proposed legislation. However, the article in my opinion fell short by not presenting the risk of cancer to our first responders who are exposed to poisonous gases including carcinogens multiple times over their careers.
The proposed legislation (Senate Bill 456 and House Bill 345) would place the obligation on the city or county to demonstrate a first responder’s cancer was not caused by job related exposures. The question I advance is whether our first responders or the insurance companies should have the burden of determining whether the cancer was job-related or not?
Law Enforcement Officers, Firefighters and EMS workers who responded to the World Trade Center attack on September 11th, 2001 were initially exposed to poisonous products of combustion while performing firefighting and rescue operations. After the towers fell, first responders worked for days, weeks, and months in search and recovery operations multiplying their exposure to a toxic atmosphere.
When diagnosed with cancer, first responders oftentimes have to demonstrate “competent evidence” the cancer was indeed caused by one of hundreds of substances encountered, possibly over a 35-year career. This is no easy task for the first responder and the family when the worker compensation insurers are doing everything in their power to deny the claim. The injured first responder has to track down every contact with a dangerous substance which, for the most part, was unknown at the time. Not every dangerous substance we encounter is labeled and in full view. In fact, many if not most, dangerous substances are in typical home products and some are built right into many structures in which we live and work. Most of these products remain dormant until they are burned in a fire or otherwise released into the air.
To battle a typical house fire, firefighters will most likely encounter carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene gas, and other toxic substances that can be absorbed directly through the skin during firefighting operations all of which can cause illness and death depending on the exposure.
In the editorial, Florida League of Cities lobbyist Craig Konn states, “The presumption would be nearly impossible to overcome.” Well stated! But it is almost impossible and is certainly cost prohibitive for the family of a first responder with cancer to meet the high bar without the presumption.
As the former Fire Chief I know of many cases of first responders with cancer fighting for their benefits against insurmountable odds. By the legislation mentioned in the editorial, our first responders are asking that the worker compensation insurers, with whom the resources are available, be required to reach a determination that these cancers are not in-the-line of duty injuries.
As a candidate for the Broward County Commission, I know there will be budget impacts, but I also understand, the health and welfare of our first responders must take a higher position in our budget priorities. If this legislation passes and is signed by the Governor, we can all be confident in knowing our first responders are being treated fairly during their battles with cancer.
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