With Earl Warren Showgrounds as a backdrop, Representative Lois Capps on Monday announced that she would be introducing HR 3718, titled the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, along with Republican House member Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania. The bill is designed to protect the rights and benefits of firefighters who become ill as a result of occupational exposure to hazards and the daily stresses of the job, especially those that result in catastrophic illnesses such as cancer that may develop over long periods of time due to such exposure.
California firefighters have enjoyed such protection since 1982 when Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s first cancer presumption law. Since then, each of the remaining 49 states has passed some form of similar legislation, but the state laws do not apply to those who work for the federal government. That includes firefighters at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Los Padres Forest employees, or other federal agencies, many of whom were deployed on the Zaca, Gap, Tea, and Jesusita fires through mutual-aid agreements.
“Studies have consistently showed that firefighters suffer cancers at a much higher rate than the general public,” California Professional Firefighters spokesperson Chris Mahon noted during Monday’s press conference. “Yet at the same time, it is almost impossible to track the diseases that firefighters suffer back to any one of the hundreds or thousands of exposures that they suffer during the course of a career. As a result, every state has developed some form of presumptive law to provide the workers’ compensation benefits needed to treat the diseases they contract on the job.”
Unfortunately none of these laws protect those who work for the federal government, meaning that when firefighters come down with a lung disease or some form of cancer, they are faced with the task of proving when, where, and what type of exposure caused the disease.
“This is an inequity that needs to be changed,” said Capps, who is introducing HR 3718 in this year’s session of the House of Representatives. “Our firefighters were there for us when the call came on our recent fires, and they all faced the same dangers, yet many of them will not get the same support if they get ill, just because they chose a federal career.”
“There’s an assumption,” Capps noted, “that long-term diseases like cancer are connected to the hazards of firefighting, and in California, city and county firefighters are protected by that assumption. It’s a dangerous job from the get-go, yet federal firefighters don’t get the benefit of that doubt. They are faced with an unattainable standard of proof, and that needs to change.”
Though Capps also sponsored similar legislation in 2011, she is optimistic that it will get passed this year, noting that a version of the bill passed in the Senate last session. “Everyone thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she added, “It’s just a matter of getting it done.”