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Sparking debate

By Staff | Feb 10, 2016


Firefighters do not have an easy job. They run into burning buildings to put out fires and rescue the people who are trapped inside.

They also breathe in and absorb toxins that are in the air caused by the fire. As a result, many of their fellow workers are contracting cancer at near epidemic levels firefighter say.

That is why there is a bill making its way through the state legislature that would presume that any firefighter found to have contracted cancer did so on the job.

While that seems logical, there are opponents who call the bill an unpaid mandate that doesn’t take into account other factors, such as habits like smoking or drinking or genetics.

Heather Mazurkiewicz, who works with Bayshore Fire & Rescue, has been in Tallahassee this week lobbying for the bill. She also is the organizer for the Boot Initiative, which places boots on the steps of the Capitol to represent fallen firefighters.

She said the fire presumption law is on the books in some shape in 36 states and that Florida should be the next to enact it.

The bill is sponsored by local State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen and Sen. Jack Latvala, who represents part of Pinellas County and would remove the onus of proof from firefighters that their cancer is job-related.

The bill has the support of all the major firefighting unions.

“Right now, the onus is on the firefighter to prove that cancer occurred on the job. If the bill passes, the presumption lies in favor of the firefighter that it was job related,” Mazurkiewicz said. “We can then tap into workers’ compensation, death benefits and such.”

The onus would then fall on the insurance company to prove that it wasn’t job-related.

Mazurkiewicz said the lobby effort is to educate people on the dangers of today’s fires, which aren’t the same as they were years ago because of the products and materials that are in the home today.

“Your mother’s home had natural products like wood. Now everything is petroleum based. When those burn, the smoke is carcinogenic, it’s poison,” Mazurkiewicz said. “We have to educate the public and ourselves within the profession to do things to prevent or lessen the percentage of getting cancer.”

“There were few man-made materials years ago. Now, it’s all man made. These are hardened chemicals and hardened flammable liquids. When they burn, they off-gas a lot of cancerous products,” Bayshore Fire Chief Larry Nisbet said. “Cancer has exploded so much that it’s the No. 1 killer of firefighters.”

Mazurkiewicz said the suits they wear allow the firefighters to be protected from the heat, as well as allows heat to escape. Unfortunately, the carcinogens settle on them and the firefighters’ pores open up, and in the heat the absorption rate goes up 400 percent.

Consequently, there has been an increase in throat cancer, colon cancer, brain cancer, and that one in three firefighters will be diagnosed with some sort of cancer during their careers.

Nisbet said that means on his staff of 12 firefighters, four will potentially contract cancer by the end of their career. He said that early detection needs to be a part of that legislation.

“My health insurance won’t allow me to have a colonoscopy until I’m 50. Those are expensive. One of the top cancers for firefighter is colon cancer,” Nisbet said. “We’re not going to prevent cancer entirely, but early detection will be key.”

On Thursday, Mazurkiewicz and others placed 300 pairs of boots on the steps of the Old Capitol Building, each pair to represent a firefighter who passed away from, survived the diagnosis of, or is currently battling cancer.

Despite this, the League of Cities, which works for the municipalities, including Cape Coral, strongly opposes the legislation, saying that it would bring additional cost and impose an unfunded mandate to the cities.

Cape Coral Councilmember Jim Burch, who serves on the league’s board of directors, explained the league’s take is that there are already provisions in place for firefighters who suffer illness on the job, they just aren’t presumed to have come that way.

“There are 42,000 firefighters in the state, 40,000 of which work for local municipalities. If the law is passed, the cities will pick up the tab and create an unfunded mandate,” Burch said. “They’re saying ‘We’ll make the law, but you’ll pay for it.'”

Burch added that the league fears that if a firefighter smokes and contacts lung cancer, the bill will guarantee he’s covered as a firefighter, regardless, and that is not a good presumption.

Burch said the city has not taken a position on the matter, adding that he doesn’t think the bill will get signed into law.

Nisbet understands the potential expense at the state or local level, and that the broadness of the language in the bill has to be clean up. But he added state laws also mandate certain things of the firefighters.

“You have individual who can circumvent the system. We can only control what they do on duty, but when they’re certified, they sign an affidavit that says they haven’t used tobacco in more than a year,” Nisbet said. “The amount of people in the profession who smoke has decreased significantly.”

Nisbet said despite the new dangers firefighters face, people haven’t stopped going to fire academies or volunteering, and they’re not going to.

“With the hazards we face, people wonder why we would want to be firefighters. They continue to come. It’s a calling. They want to help people and know what it means to serve the community.” Nisbet said.