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Firefighter cancer presumption bill advances

By Staff | Apr 18, 2019

With only three weeks left to go in the legislative session in Tallahassee, a proposed committee bill that gives firefighters and their families insurance and benefits if diagnosed with cancer was heard by the Florida House of Representatives and was passed unanimously on Thursday with no amendment and is to be moved to the House floor next week.

“This bill, in some form, has been filed for almost two decades. Today is the first time it has made it past the House Committee. We are confident it will go to the House floor and voted for favorably,” said Heather Mazurkiewicz, a champion for the bill and member of the Florida Professional Firefighters and North Collier Professional Firefighters & Paramedics Local 2297. “It’s huge.”

By a vote of 24-0, the cancer presumption bill is starting to look like a reality, something Mazurkiewicz and advocates did not believe possible less than two days prior to its passing.

“My emotions — I’m having a hard time putting them into words,” she said. “Though a frustrating process, what is right is what has happened. Firefighters and their families will be protected and that’s what’s most important.

“Thirty-six hours ago we didn’t think it was going to happen. We were starting to plan for how to get this heard next year. Now, we’re coming home with a unanimous decision.”

The bill already had support in the Senate, but was held up in the House due to speculation of House Speaker Jose Oliva holding an old political grudge despite 82 out of 117 members of the House signed on as co-sponsors.

Oliva’s office released the following statement on Tuesday: “The debate this year, as in past years, was never against firefighters nor was it political. It was the legislature that supported the funding to establish the proper need to begin with. Unfortunately, the debate became about whether we support our firefighters – of course we do. And it became about whether it was political – of course it wasn’t. Still, the environment has become too toxic to debate the true original disagreement. As such, we will move legislation forward, more so as the differences are not so great as to invite the assumptions now being spread.”

Two days later, a unanimous vote brings the state one step closer in providing first responders with benefits that all but three states (including Florida) provide.

“I received phone calls from widows and family members right after the decision — they were in tears. They feel now that their loved ones did not die in vain,” Mazurkiewicz said.

Many firefighters and their family members gave powerful testimony in front of the House on Thursday, and they listened.

“The Florida House stands firmly with our first responders and firefighters, and I am very pleased with the debate and unanimous support of the bill in committee today,” said District 77 Rep. and Majority Leader, Dane Eagle, on Thursday.

The bill calls for $920,329 from the state budget and $3,144,926 in county contributions. The funds would be pushed to the local level throughout all of the counties. Miami/Dade would pay the most and is a supporter of the bill.

The initiative top get the bill passed dates back to 2007. Mazurkiewicz said there has really been a big push to get it done in the last four years.

In 2017, a group, including Mazurkiewicz, traveled to Tallahassee and placed 265 pairs of firefighter boots on the steps of the old Capitol Building to represent firefighters that had died due to cancer.

This past March, Mazurkiewicz and peers once again ventured to Tallahassee — this time putting 500 pairs of firefighter boots in the courtyard of the Capitol, so that lawmakers would “have to walk through our graveyard to get to their job,” said Mazurkiewicz.

Cancer was the No. 1 killer of firefighters in 2018, Mazurkiewicz said, 74 percent of deaths, in fact, were linked to cancer.

Though firefighters wear protective masks and devices to protect their breathing, it’s the carcinogens that make their way into the body through skin that may lead to cancer.

She pointed out what burns in a fire may not be the same as days of old.

Computers, plastics, electronics — all unnatural substances — create hyper-dangerous toxins, more so than naturally burning items such as wood.

“We’re exposed to it on a regular basis,” Mazurkiewicz said.

And it’s not just lung cancer — it’s lymphoma, colon, testicular, pancreatic and brain cancer that take the lives of firefighters.

“For every five degrees skin temperature rises, there is as much as a 400 percent increase in absorption,” Mazurkiewicz said.

She said firefighters are now being trained to decontaminate on-site, rather than back at the station.

“We’re driving home the fact that we have to be diligent when it comes to decontamination,” she said.

The University of Miami was also appropriated $5 million in 2015 for the “Firefighter Cancer Initiative,” a study to “better document and understand the excess burden of cancer among Florida firefighters, and identify novel, evidence-based methods for reducing risk.”

Mazurkiewicz found firefighting as a late calling in life after working 20 years in local government.

It all began one fateful day after she had won a ride along with the Cape Coral Fire Department in 2013. She didn’t know her life would change that day.

“I fell in love,” she said.

Mazurkiewicz said there was nothing “special” about the ride along — as in no crazy fires or calls, it was just the people she was drawn to.

“It was just the time with the firefighters,” she said. “I was supposed to spend six hours with them. I spent 13.

“They told me all of their stories and I listened to their conversations and they gave me their honest experiences.”

Mazurkiewicz took her ride along in December of ’13, quit her job in April of ’14 and graduated from the firefighters academy seven months later.

“There isn’t a better job in the world for me,” she said.

Now, she has made a difference, along with many others who have played a vital role in having the voices of firefighters across the state, here or gone, heard.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj