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Cancer now considered an on the job risk for firefighters, according to FL legislators

Posted at 8:52 PM, Apr 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-24 23:19:51-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP/WFTS) — The Florida House has sent Gov. Ron DeSantis a bill providing new benefits to firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

The bill unanimously passed Wednesday would provide firefighters with benefits including the full cost of treatment, a $25,000 payout, disability pay and death benefits for beneficiaries. The Senate passed it Tuesday.

The bill recognizes 21 different cancers related to firefighters.

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The bill would treat cancer and cancer deaths like on-the-job injuries and deaths. It is a top priority for Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, the state's fire marshal.

For Tampa firefighter, Mike Billek Senate Bill 426 helps fulfill his father Joe’s dying wish.

“I think about my dad every day today especially,” Billek said. “My dad’s dying wish was that through sharing his story, through continuing our foundation, that we could hopefully prevent what happened to him to happening to another family.”

Captain Joe Billek was a Tampa firefighter for 28 years. In 2012 Billek said his dad lost his battle with melanoma.

“I said dad ‘it’s just skin cancer’ he said no this is different, this is different,” Billek said. “The doctors right out the gate told him you have a 5 percent chance to live the next five years of your life and he was 49 years old and a perfectly healthy man at that point. And ultimately, at 51 and a half years old it took his life."

Billek said the fire service in Florida continues to evolve.

Tampa fire now has a standard operating procedure for firefighters to decontaminate their bodies after a fire.

“The new badge of honor is clean gear,” Billek said. “We are trying to get as much of the carcinogens that we are taking out of these fires off of our body and off of our gear as soon as possible.”

Billek is a driver engineer at station 21. Billek knows the risks but said firefighting in his blood. He is a third generation firefighter following in his father’s footsteps, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a firefighter in New York City.

Billek and hundreds of other firefighters across the state lined the capital with hundreds of boots and photos of firefighters that died, not battling blazes, but disease. Billek thinks that pressure convinced lawmakers to do the right thing.

The bill failed for years. Republican Sen. Anitere Flores said some version of it had been filed since 2003. It almost died this year because the House wasn't going to take it up, but last week Speaker Jose Oliva acknowledged pressure to pass it and allowed it to be considered.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska contributed to this Associated Press report.