SEBRING — Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill to expand cancer coverage benefits for firefighters, at risk of exposure to high levels of burning chemicals and plastics.
Senate Bill 426, which received unanimous support in the Legislature, requires local governments to provide a series of benefits to firefighters diagnosed with any one of 21 types of cancer, News Service of Florida reports, including a lump sum of $25,000 upon diagnosis to help pay bills while undergoing treatment.
“There will be a system in place to allow them to have some benefits and coverage, in addition to their own health insurance,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis, a supporter of the bill, News Service reports. “This will, moving forward, help us recruit and help those families have as much normalcy as they can as they fight cancer.”
The move has drawn cheers from firefighters, including Highlands County Fire Rescue Chief Marc Bashoor, a proponent of efforts to reduce and properly treat incidents of cancer among firefighters.
“As a fire service professional for the past 38 years, it is heartening to see most states now supporting the fact that firefighters contract cancer at much higher rates than the general population,” Bashoor said.
In the process of modernizing and consolidating Highlands’ volunteer departments into one full-time paid department with various local stations, Bashoor has said he wants to see scrubbers and ventilation systems installed in every station to remove diesel exhaust fumes from the trucks and vent them outside, away from the bays.
He said Highlands, like most progressive departments, utilizes new gear and breathing apparatus compliant with National Fire Protection Association standard.
“We have recently asked the state for the decontamination kits that other counties received through grants about two years ago,” Bashoor said. “While a couple of the (volunteer departments) took advantage, (Fire Rescue) will ensure every fire engine in Highlands County has a kit on board.
It allows fire crews to do quick decontamination of firefighters’ gear with water and soap, Bashoor said — before they leave a fire scene.
“The fire service is taking significant steps to minimize our exposure to carcinogens, however the risk is real and in some cases unavoidable,” Bashoor said.
His is not the only department taking steps to protect firefighters’ health. Sebring Fire Department has similar decontamination kits and air scrubbers in the bays.
Sebring Fire has also instituted a program called Firefighters Attacking Cancer Epidemic (FACE) to help reduce risks.
In addition to having bunker gear always stored in bags to keep it from exhaust fumes and to prevent smoke particles from being carried back to living quarters, the program has supply buckets with hoses, soap, scrub brushes and other cleaning tools to help detoxify bunker gear.
The program has hit home for Sebring Assistant Fire Chief Dirk Riley. When he first took the training, trainers passed around a radio strap that carried name tags of firefighters who had died early of cancer.
He knew one of the names: Robin Singles.
Now, he gives the training, including a recent class for Highlands Fire Rescue command staff, at Bashoor’s request.
After each call, firefighters must get out of bunker gear and stow it, ride back in the truck, shower and change clothes and leave the dirty bunker gear and clothes outside the truck to be laundered, while they prep and place fresh gear for the next call.
No bunker gear goes into living quarters.
No clothes worn to work go home with firefighters.
No one may respond to a fire in a personal vehicle — and take that smell home to their family. They have to come first to the station.
Other safety measures Sebring Fire has implemented include installing air scrubbers in the truck bays, caps on the underside of the fire poles — to keep smoke from coming up into living areas — and moving the ice machine outside the building, away from exhaust.
It’s all part of the practice that keeps people and the firefighters safe, Riley said.
“It’s an ordeal, but it’s keeping people healthy longer,” Riley said.
The Florida League of Cities, concerned about how municipal governments can’t afford to pay the increased benefits, had asked DeSantis to veto SB 426.
Highlands County approved an assessment last year to pay for fire consolidation and upgrades. It’s expected that county budget personnel will have to determine how to save against such contingencies.
“As a county official, I recognize that the benefits could create a financial burden on financially strapped local governments budgets,” Bashoor said. “I will work with anyone we need to ensure that burden has no effect on the service we are able to provide in Highlands County.”
Patronis’ answer was much less conciliatory, as News Service reported.
“For those local governments, it is what it is,” Patronis said. “They will learn how to embrace this policy that is long overdue.”