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New law helps firefighters diagnosed with cancer

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In his 23-year career, Anniston Fire Department Chief Chris Collins says the environments in which firefighters battle fires have changed drastically, becoming more dangerous. Wood and other natural materials in structures and furnishings have been replaced by vinyl and other petroleum-based materials.

And when they burn, they’re toxic.

“It’s no different from a hazmat situation for our firefighters,” Collins said Wednesday.

And in his career, Collins said two Anniston Fire Department sergeants have died of cancer.

Fire officials around the state praised a new Alabama law that will require local governments to provide supplemental insurance coverage for career firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

The bill lists about 20 specific types of cancer, including lung, thyroid, brain, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Officials said the insurance is a better, more flexible option than an expanded workmen's compensation program.

“Sometimes the potential battle with workman’s comp can be overwhelming when you’re already in a bad situation,” Decatur City Fire Chief Tony Grande said.

The bill calls for a lump-sum benefit for firefighters diagnosed with cancer. The cap is $50,000 over a lifetime. There is also a monthly benefit of $3,000 for up to 36 months.

House Bill 360 was sponsored by Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Greenhill. Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, carried it in the Senate.

The legislation also gives volunteer firefighters and retired firefighters the option of paying for the supplemental coverage themselves.

The Alabama League of Municipalities worked on legislation with firefighters. It estimates the requirement will cost government authorities $200 per policy annually.

“It was important to partner with the firefighters in developing a benefit that would provide financial needs during a cancer diagnosis while also being fiscally responsible with public funds,” said Kayla Bass, the League’s public affairs associate.

Local funds would pay for the increase in insurance coverage, which was a part that many of the bill’s cosponsors liked about the bill.

“The way I looked at it, obviously it’s going to help firefighters, they are getting cancer right and left, and it doesn’t cost the state of Alabama any money,” Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, said. “The municipalities will pay for it and the League of Municipalities wanted it so it looked like a win-win situation.”

Rep. Dickie Drake, R-Leeds, who was also a cosponsor on the bill, liked that it gave the firefighters more options for finding help than just through worker’s compensation.

“The firefighters, first of all, are exposed to all kinds of carcinogens when they go into a fire, and actually, if the city had to give workers compensation, it would cost them more than just paying them the insurance policy for them,” Drake said. “So I think it’s a better deal for the city and for the firefighters.”

A lot of the cancer-causing contaminants are ingested after the firefighter is done dealing with the blaze.

When the firefighters return to their station and they fail to properly wash and clean their Personal Protective Equipment, such as their protective hoods, breathing masks and turnout coats, then leftover contaminants can be absorbed into the firefighter’s skin and their surroundings.

Carcinogens are mostly absorbed through the firefighter’s lungs but the skin is the second most concerning access route.

Collins, the Anniston chief, said many department have started doing “decon” —  decontamination — of equipment after every structure fire and before they get back to their stations.

“Most all departments are putting in measures to prevent (exposure)," Collins said.

Greater risk

For firefighters, the dangerous part of their job used to be the actual fires they were putting out or the weakened structure collapsing on top of them. However, today cancer is the more likely killer of firefighters.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, cancer caused 70 percent of the line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters in 2016.

A multi-year study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters had a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnosis and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths compared to U.S. population rates.

Rep. Tommy Hanes, R-Bryant, was also a cosponsor. He favors how it offers more options for health coverage and said he’s heard positive feedback from firefighters.

“It seemed like we were never going to get anywhere as far as workman’s comp legislation, so this seemed like a good fit for Alabama firefighters and at least it gives them coverage for those who contract cancer,” Hanes said. “The firefighters we have here in Jackson County have said they are very grateful that Rep. Pettus brought this bill forward.”