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House passes firefighter cancer presumption bill

By Staff | Apr 26, 2019

It was an historic day for firefighters across Florida Wednesday, as the cancer presumption bill for firefighters was passed unanimously on the House floor and is set to be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for approval or veto.

The bill was also unanimously supported by the Senate earlier in the week.

“Today the Florida House showed that we have the backs of those who have our backs. As community leaders, our firefighters have waited long enough to get the cancer coverage they need. It’s not often that you get to do something extraordinary and monumental that will have a great impact on people’s lives. I’m honored to stand here beside Speaker (Jose) Oliva, CFO (Jimmy) Patronis, Rep. (Matt) Willhite and Rep. (Chris) Latvala to deliver a much-needed benefit for these hometown heroes,” House Rep. Blaise Ingoglia said on the house floor Wednesday.

“In my 20 years of involvement with the Florida State Legislature I have never witnessed this level of emotion in either chamber. I am very proud of the work our firefighters did to educate our legislators about why this coverage is necessary, and I am equally proud our elected officials listened to our 911 call to them and have provided this coverage for us and for our families. It is truly a historic day in the state of Florida for firefighters,” said Heather Mazurkiewicz, a champion for the bill and member of the North Collier Professional Firefighters.

The past week has been a whirlwind of emotions for those who advocated for the bill, as it seemed unlikely that it would make it to an agenda for its first House committee — a fate that the bill had succumbed to time and time again dating back to 2003.

House Speaker Oliva, who previously negated efforts to have the bill heard (despite 82 of 117 House member signed on as co-sponsors), did an about face, allowing it to be placed on an agenda with leadership as the sponsor and on April 18, after nearly two hours of powerful testimony from survivors, widows, firefights and members of the House, it was given a boisterous stamp of approval — 24-0 in fact — to be moved to the House floor. Six days later, the House Chamber was lit up green in a landslide vote of 116-0 in favor of the cancer presumption bill.

“I’d like to give Speaker Oliva a heartfelt hug and handshake for his change of heart. It takes an immense amount of courage to do what he did. And we thank him,” said Mazurkiewicz.

If DeSantis signs the bill, it will come into effect July 1 of this year, and establishes 21 cancers as occupational hazards associated with firefighting.

Florida is one of only a handful of states yet to implement legislation of this kind.

It states that firefighters be granted health insurance, including disability and death benefits, as long as they meet requirements such as no tobacco use and being on the job for at least five years. The bill states it will also give firefighters a one-time lump sum of $25,000 upon diagnosis to be used for “out-of-pocket expenses.”

“From firefighters working their first day on the job, to students in the academy, to veteran firefighters, this has been a historic week,” said Mazurkiewicz.

According to a study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health — the largest study to date on the topic of firefighters and cancer — firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

Cancers they listed most responsible for higher risk include lung, mesothelioma, oral cavity, esophageal, large intestine and kidney.

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 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 in days of old.

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

Mazurkiewicz opted to wear a special shirt for the House reading on Wednesday.

Under a blazer was a red T-shirt that read: “Team Jeremy. Fighting More Than FiresSurviving Brain Cancer.”

Jeremy Saunders was an Orlando International Airport firefighter who lost his life to brain cancer.

Mazurkiewicz was contacted by his widow, who told her that she and her children thanked her, and that they feel that he did not die in vain.

There were many firefighters and family members in Tallahassee for the momentous occasion, and even more watching around the state via a live feed.

“For as many firefighters sitting in the gallery, there were three times as many across the state. To know so many people came together means the world,” Mazurkiewicz said.

The bill calls for $920,329 from the state budget and $3,144,926 in county contributions. Each district/department will come up with the funding. Miami/Dade would pay the most and is a supporter of the bill.

The push for the passage of this bill has been a long one, though it was the determination and vigor of advocates that made their voices — and actions — heard year after year.

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.

She said hearing the testimony, not just from firefighters, but from members of the House, was eye-opening.

“Listening to the testimony from the elected officials — their voices were surprised from previous leadership. It’s an amazing thing to watch,” said Mazurkiewicz.

So, what would she say to DeSantis now that the bill is making its way to his desk?

“I’ll wait here while you go and grab the bill to sign it,” she said in good spirits.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj