Feb 6, 2017
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is now pushing for what would be a first-of-its-kind national firefighter cancer registry, while Florida firefighters continue their fight for benefits.
Schumer made the announcement earlier this week during a stop at a Buffalo, NY fire station. The new legislation aims to help medical professionals track and treat firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
It is unknown how many firefighters across the country and in Sunshine State have been diagnosed with cancer. No one tracks the information at the local or state level in Florida. The Sunshine State is now one of a shrinking list of states without laws to protect firefighters diagnosed with cancer. Currently, 37 U.S. states have passed legislation that provide workman's compensation benefits to firefighters diagnosed with cancer. A state bill has been filed in both the Florida House and Senate that would provide benefits to Florida firefighters diagnosed with certain job related cancers.
Several national studies prove the link between firefighting and certain cancers. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control released findings from a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) multi-year study of 30,000 fire fighters from fire departments across the country. It concluded that firefighters had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the general U.S. population.
Researchers from the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center are currently in their second year of studying the concern among Florida firefighters. The Firefighter Cancer Initiative (FCI) was launched in 2015 in an effort to study firefighters' exposure to carcinogens and their risks of developing cancers. In its first year, more than 1,600 active firefighters throughout Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County completed an annual cancer survey. The project, which also includes proactive screenings and a wellness program for firefighters, is expanding to include firefighters from additional stations across the state.
The national registry, proposed by Schumer, would track incidents of firefighters with cancer and make that data available to researchers working with the CDC.
On a recent afternoon, we asked several Florida firefighters why they became firefighters.
"I wanted to do something honorable," said one.
"I want to save someone's life,” said another.
But what happens when the people that give their life for yours, need you to fight for them?
Pasco County firefighter Kathy Babcock is a third generation firefighter. “My dad was a firefighter, my grandfather was as firefighter,” she explained. Third generation to get cancer. "
"How am I going to tell my kids? It wasn’t about me. That's the first thing I thought of how do I tell my kids,” she said through tears. After 20 weeks of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation, and a double mastectomy, Kathy now holds desk job for the fire department. Her cancer status remains. “I’m still battling,” she said.
Pete Huffman of the Gulfport Fire Department, lost his battle with colon cancer 5 months ago. “He developed a very short bucket list,” explained his wife Marcy. “We didn't get to the Grand Canyon and we didn't get to the harbors in Maine," she said.
Pete and Kathy are among the now all too familiar portraits of Florida firefighters who spent years running into burning buildings but couldn’t run away from cancer.
“Firefighters are more likely to develop cancer than the average person.” Dr, Alberto Caban- Martinez, The University of Miami.
Pete Huffman invited us into his life shortly after he was diagnosed and forced to retire from the job he loved for more than 3 decades.
Two years after Pete sounded that alarm during his first and only interview with us, Florida has yet to protect any of its cancer-stricken firefighters.
In fact, the sunshine state is one a shrinking list of states that have not adopted what's widely known as the cancer presumption bill.
The bill would allow firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers to collect workman’s compensation benefits.
“Getting time off to get treatment and not worrying about getting a paycheck is very important," explained Jim Tolley, President of the Florida Professional Firefighters Association which works on legislative matters.
Last year, lawmakers torched the bill before it could ignite much debate.
Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg was the only Senator to vote against the bill during a committee meeting last session.
When asked why he didn’t vote for the bill, he said,
"Last year's bill basically said you could smoke a carton of cigarettes if you were a firefighter and you still got the presumption," he said.
This year, firefighters are at it again, pushing a new and revised version that limits eligibility to cancer-stricken firefighters living tobacco-free for 5 years prior to diagnosis.
The new bill also restrictions benefits to only those firefighters diagnosed with one of (4) proven job-related cancers.
Those cancers include multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer or testicular cancer.
Kathy’s breast cancer is not one of them. Still she’s pleading to lawmakers.
“Please, please for the sake of my brothers and sisters that are out there,” she said.
“We’ve got to pass it this year,” said Marcy Huffman
"You don't work, you don't get a paycheck, we weren't prepared for that. I know they need this," she said.
Marcy is continuing the fight her husband started and the one, their son may eventually need.
“I am a firefighter for the Pinellas Park fire department,” explained Chris Huffman.
He’s not afraid of cancer but he’s afraid Florida lawmakers won’t recognize the link researchers have already proven.
“It would just be a little bit added security knowing that the risks we take is somewhat noticed,” he said.
The bill, Senate bill 158, sailed through a recent committee meeting. It still has a way to go in both the Senate and House.