OWCP moves toward recognizing presumptive diseases for wildland firefighters

wildland firefighter with hose
NWCG photo.

Yesterday the Department of Labor announced that they have implemented important changes for processing Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) claims submitted by firefighters. FICA can pay medical expenses and compensation benefits to injured workers and survivors, and helps injured employees return to work when they are medically able to do so. The new policy eases the evidentiary requirements needed to support claims filed by federal employees engaged in fire protection and suppression activities for certain cancers, heart conditions and lung conditions. In essence, to an untrained observer, the new program looks similar to the presumptive disease policy employed by many fire departments and governments.

The new Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs FECA Bulletin, No. 22-07 “Special Case Handling in Certain Firefighter FECA Claims Processing and Adjudication” issued April 19, 2022, establishes a list of cancers and medical conditions for which the firefighter does not have to submit proof that their disease was caused by an on the job injury. The requirements to qualify for this new policy are that the condition must be diagnosed by a doctor, the person was engaged in fire protection activities for at least 5 years, and the diagnosis must have occurred no more than 10 years after employment.

If these requirements are met, the employee’s claim would be deemed “high-risk” and qualify for expedited processing.

The medical conditions covered are:

  • Cancers: esophageal, colorectal, prostate, testicular, kidney, bladder, brain, lung, buccal cavity/pharynx, larynx, thyroid, multiple myeloma, nonHodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, mesothelioma, or melanoma; or
  • Hypertension, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma, or a sudden cardiac event or stroke.

To implement the policy changes, OWCP has created a special claims unit to process federal firefighters’ claims. The unit consists of existing staff specifically trained to handle these issues. The agency is also providing comprehensive training to the unit’s examiners on the impacts of the policy changes, and working with federal agencies including the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security and Interior to explain the changes in policy and procedures.

These two major changes in how the OWCP handles illness and injury claims from firefighters appear to be monumental improvements if they pan out as advertised. In recent years the reputation and services provided by the agency for injured or sick firefighters, or the surviving spouses and family members of those killed on the job, has been abysmal. Too often they have been driven to beg for money at GoFundMe just to pay medical bills after being hounded by bill collectors when the federal government did not fulfill their legal obligations.

NFFE and IAFF met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh
NFFE and IAFF met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (wearing the red tie) and Department of Labor officials in Los Angeles, April 20, 2022 to discuss processing of firefighters’ injury claims. NFFE photo.

Some of these changes and improvements are due in part to efforts that have been going on behind the scenes by members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, International Association of Fire Fighters, and the National Federation of Federal Employees. In the last month they have traveled to Washington DC and Los Angeles (at least) to meet with federal officials who can make things happen. For example they have met with Marty Walsh, the Secretary of Labor, twice. These folks deserve your thanks.

One of the causes of the slow response to firefighters’ injury and death claims has been a reduction in the number of OWCP claims examiners due to declining budgets over the last few years. It is critical that the President and both houses of Congress follow up and ensure that the agency is appropriately funded so that they can perform their required duties, assisting employees injured or sickened on the job.

More information from the Department of Labor:

How to file a workers’ compensation claim (From the OWCP):

To file a workers’ compensation claim, you must first register for an Employees’ Compensation Operations and Management Portal (ECOMP) account at www.ecomp.dol.gov. ECOMP is a free web-based application. You do not need approval from your supervisor or anyone else at your agency to initiate your FECA workers’ compensation claim. Once you register for an ECOMP account, you will be able to file either Form CA-1 ‘Notice of Traumatic Injury’ (single event trauma) or Form CA-2 ‘Notice of Occupational Disease’ (repeated exposure).

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

17 thoughts on “OWCP moves toward recognizing presumptive diseases for wildland firefighters”

  1. Valentine a totally neglected issue for many years.
    I had a broken bone in my foot but I still have 50 years later because the supervisors didn’t want to do the paperwork.
    It was always about the crew oh if we don’t have you we can’t go to your hurt or sick we don’t have enough people to go it’s all for the rest of the crew not for the individual

  2. so does this only go into effect if the fed recognize forestry technicians as firefighters before they die? asking for a friend

  3. Oh oh ..an up n coming workload for an organization that ought to have known how to take care of the paperwork due and further care of the firefighter and the Gov worker.

    I for one, used em once for a burn on my arm…took awhile to settle

    What are we supposed to do? Do cartwheels for an organization that parked itself on its fourth point of contact for all these years? Are we supposed to recognize an outfit for doing a job that they were supposed to do all along?

    The only thing worth it now is to see how fast claims are settled and how much further care they are responsible for , for the worker

  4. I wonder if they will cover something that you had in the past and have already been treated for it. My husband had colon cancer 2 years after retiring. Worth a try anyway.

  5. I think it’s really incredible how fast all this came around. As Bill said, NFFE, IAFF and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters all have done tremendous work to get this done. Some of us met with Marty Walsh last month in the NFFE DC office and he was really stunned by our current situation.

    Marty is a really great guy, and he said he would look into our issues and do what he could, acknowledging bureaucratic issues are a problem in the federal government. About a month later Marty was calling NFFE to make good on his promise. He did what he could and that was a lot! I have no doubt he will continue to work behind the scenes to help improve our support structure from his side.

    I hope people can see the changes we are making. It’s a lot of work, but don’t get discouraged. It seems like an uphill battle, but then you find someone like Secretary Walsh who wants to fight for you. It’s not the same old story right now and any one person can make a big difference, so write Op-Eds and shake hands with the right people.

    Someone asked if “forestry technicians” are included and yes, absolutely we are.

    I hope to never need this new benefit, but I personally know several who need it now, so it’s a really great feeling to get a “win” on this issue.

    Stay positive and fired up folks, more to come!

    1. Glad about the “forestry tech” thing. Owcp insisted using this on my widow claim even though his official job description said primary firefighter- 12 years! I felt this was used to minimize the job. When I agreed to dismiss my federal tort suit in exchange for my rightful widow benefits, I required the papers state primary firefighter instead of forestry tech.

  6. What if you were never a “perm” and are a long term temporary 1039 for 5 -10 seasons? How about 10+ 1039 seasons within the last decade? Would they still qualify? Asking for all the strange friends we know.

    1. My understanding is you need to have 130 pay periods of service and your last day has to be within the last ten years. Doesn’t matter if you were a temporary employee or Permanent employee.

  7. Thanks to all those who have taken time away from family and money out of their pockets to get these issues in front of the right people at the right time. (Not patting myself or buddies on the back, as I wasn’t there. I was on an assignment in March to make rent and doing my best to find a spot on the side of a hill to talk to managers about ensuring R&R for all assignments (“emergency” or not), and focusing on the mental and financial stress our current harassment “penalty box” is putting on innocent to mild offenders. Guess I went ahead and humble bragged myself…) Anyway, point of my post is to call out folks like Ben who have come out of nowhere and dedicated an enormous amount of time and energy to do amazing things. There are more following and it is exciting to see. Getting OWCP change is a more complex mystery than getting a few lines in a bill for extra pay in my opinion. Not putting that down, but to have those who have served, suffer in pain to the point of suicide, those are the things that keep me up at night. Getting that level of bureaucratic minutiae changed, truly gives some hope for meaningful things to come. Keep hopping on board and getting involved folks. You can make a difference.

  8. Take note Alberta. You’re ok at fire prevention, but you suck at disease prevention.

  9. Thank you so much for the hard work. As one whose begged for gofundme money to pay for not one, not two, but 14 rounds of chemos therapy, numerous surgeries and a stem cell transplant! I know how lost, afraid, and alone it feels to work for an agency who does not have your back when s*** gets real. I also feel very fortunate I have a PPO and did not go through OWCP for I might truly be dead today!!!!! OWCP may kill your to save $$$

  10. So much is dependent on a change in the culture of the agency. Its great the person at the top was stunned about the realities of a firefighter trying to get compensated for a claim. But you have all the mid-level managers and worker bees who have been treating claims as adversarial for decades. Changing that culture is wear the work starts. We see the same thing in OPM in the way they handle issues surrounding the hiring and use of temporary employees by the land management agencies. I’m not just talking about the series 462 thing. Its a cultural thing in that agency that no one has been able to change.

    1. I keep asking myself why the USFS/DOI leadership didn’t go to the DOL themselves and say, “hey, our employees really need this coverage, can we make that happen?”

      Like, if the DC folks are saying they want to improve lives of the Wildland Firefighters they employ, then start doing something.

  11. I am confused… if this were to pass, why would those of us who have been here the longest be excluded from the coverage? No more than 10 years with the agency? That makes zero sence.

Comments are closed.