Bill passes in House to establish list of presumptive illnesses for federal firefighters

Creates the presumption that federal firefighters who become disabled by certain serious diseases contracted them on the job

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Firefighter Cerro Pelado Fire in Arizona
Firefighter on the Cerro Pelado Fire in New Mexico, May, 2022. IMT photo.

Today the House of Representatives voted 288-131 to approve and advance the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, H.R. 2499, a bipartisan measure authored by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA) that ensures federal firefighters receive the same access to job-related disability and retirement benefits as state, county, and municipal firefighters.

The legislation would create the presumption that firefighters who become disabled by certain serious diseases contracted them on the job, including heart disease, lung disease, certain cancers, and other infectious diseases.

Federal firefighters do not have signed legislation establishing the presumption that local firefighters have in 49 out of 50 U.S. states– and are forced to identify specific exposures that may have caused their illness. This burden of proof makes it extraordinarily difficult for federal firefighters to qualify for workers comp and disability benefits related to their work.

The measure would improve benefits for more than 20,000 federal firefighters across the U.S., with about 16,000 of them being wildland firefighters. It would apply to “personnel who have been employed for a minimum of 5 years in aggregate as an employee in fire protection activities.”

The diseases covered under the legislation, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, are:

  • Bladder cancer, brain cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colorectal cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, leukemias, lung cancer, mesothelioma, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer, skin cancer (melanoma), testicular cancer, thyroid cancer, and a sudden cardiac event or stroke while, or not later than 24 hours after engaging in certain fire-related activities described in the bill.

It was just three weeks ago, on April 19, when the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), in FECA Bulletin No. 22-07, established 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 medical conditions covered under the OWCP bulletin as of last month 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.

The OWCP list includes six conditions that are not in H.R. 2499: buccal cavity/pharynx cancer, larynx cancer, hypertension, coronary artery disease, pulmonary fibrosis, and asthma.

H.R. 2499 covers one disease not in the OWCP list, skin cancer, an important addition, especially for wildland firefighters whose work requires being outside most of the time. The bill includes a method for adding other diseases within a three-year period, including breast cancer, if supported by scientific evidence.

The pending legislation had 203 co-sponsors in the House, an extraordinarily large number of representatives who stated early-on that they were in favor of the bill and wanted to help get it passed.

The next step is the Senate, a place where many bills go to die. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are the lead sponsors of a bipartisan companion bill there. It has 12 co-sponsors, only two of which are Republicans. With a 50-50 Dem/Rep balance and a requirement for 60 of the 100 Senators to vote yes, the passage is not a foregone conclusion, in spite of overwhelming approval in the House.

“We know fire fighters are routinely exposed to carcinogens on fire scenes. Sadly, our brothers and sisters in federal service are too often denied the benefits they deserve when needed the most,” said International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General President Edward Kelly. “The Federal Firefighter Fairness Act brings the federal government in line with the 49 states that recognize the deadly link between firefighting and cancer.”

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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.

20 thoughts on “Bill passes in House to establish list of presumptive illnesses for federal firefighters”

  1. “The bill includes a method for adding other diseases within a three-year period, including breast cancer, if supported by scientific evidence.”

    Scientific evidence? So, you’re going to make men and women, mostly women, have to prove that they got breast cancer from firefighting? That’s insane!

    1. No. The legislation provides a means for adding additional presumptive illnesses, including breast cancer, if there is sufficient scientific evidence to prove it needs to be a presumptive disease.

  2. Amen. One prayer answered. Come to me, if you ever need to learn specific fire(s) for case studies — Thank you, Jesus. Now, all we need is YCSO to explain why they took into inventory what they did the week of June 30, 2013, and why they placed specifics on there as well, yet it never made it to the SAIT SAIR – ADOSH investigation notes or final reports. ??? Let’s keep it rolling… truth telling year, fellas …

  3. While this is excellent news, the glaring omissions are cancers that strike women — breast (acknowledging men also get breast cancer), ovarian, uterine. I know from being a women in wildfire and talking with other women there are real reproductive health issues affecting women firefighters. Why are we still having to remind folks that we are firefighters and that we make the same sacrifices that men make? It’s exhausting. And the OWCP didn’t even add them like they did the other conditions.

  4. I believe this is the same legislation I read that will cover former fed firefighters up to 10 years after leaving the agency if they have a minimum of 5 years.
    This sounds great on paper but if it’s anything as convoluted as hiring makes it, those 5-whatever total season will be carved up into months that need to add up to 5 years in total.

    Still a great step in the right direction and happy for fed wildland firefighters

  5. The caption to the picture mentions Cerro Pelado Fire but that is in New Mexico, not AZ. The biggest fire in the country, Hermits Peak Fire, was a controlled burn that got away. Bad history in New Mexico: Las Conchas Fire in 2011 (156,000 acres) was another controlled burn that got away and burned Los Alamos.

    1. Las Conchas was not a controlled burn. It was fire started on private land by a private land owner. Cerro Grande in May of 2000 was an escaped prescribed fire that did destroy over 400 homes and structures within the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

  6. I guess Forestry Techs are out of luck then. Too bad. Federal firefighters are a different species than Forestry Techs.

  7. So why do the job, when you know from research, that you may contract cancers?
    So, go smoke your ass off, then whine when you have issues because of it. Same thing.
    Let the whining begin…
    “But I’m a firefighter. No one told me there are carcinogenic elements in the air I breathe, and work in”.
    No fault of my own, right!
    Gimme a f break.
    Don’t apply then. And if you are there, quit before it’s too late.

    1. Mmmm, I’m not wining. I’m pissed! I know of several women who were fired because they had cancer. The FS didn’t want to pay for their treatment. Some of those women died of cancer. And now, there’s this bill that seems to have ignored women’s illnesses. As an Air Quality Specialist, I have spent years researching the connection between firefighting and cancer. Writing many, many papers on the subject. A firefighter loses 20 years of their life by fighting fires. (FS/NPS knows that…that’s why retirement age is lower for firefighters). Not only that but a firefighter has an 80% chance of getting some type of cancer. What gets me is seeing people spray pesticides without PPE. We know that causes cancer. And yes, all you in timber…you might want to ask what’s in that paint that you mark trees with. The other issue that drives me crazy is not only the smoke you breath in a fire, but sometimes that fire goes across areas that are polluted. And you’re breathing in that pollution. I understand that what you’re saying about not doing the job, but someone has to do it and the FS/NPS has to take responsibility. Why do people who fight structure fires have PPE, but people who fight wildfires don’t? They don’t even get the option. Why does our military get PPE, but our firefighters don’t? Is it because the PPE is too heavy? Or that it’s too expensive? Or is it that the FS/NPS just doesn’t care? We’re not wining! We’re pissed!!!

    2. Mmmm- Why drive a car? You know you have a chance of being in a car crash. Do you turn down workplace auto insurance coverage? Stop driving before it’s too late!!!

  8. The question that comes to my mind is this: does this bill just cover people who have FFTR retirement or does it cover all personell who had fire positions whether covered or not? I suspect just covered positions which leaves out many others who have spend years on fires.

  9. Riva Duncan- I was curious about this myself and spoke to a friend who is a physician. She said (not knowing what the criteria actually is for the selection of those diseases covered) that she suspected that it was mostly due to a lack of evidence to tie ( think associated but not fully proven cause and effect) smoking to female reproductive cancers. She also said something about female endocrine system that does something different than males in how cancer develops in reproductive organs and how certain types of cancer causing factors react to the the different sexes. Females having a better natural “defense mechanism” against developing reproductive cancers from external risk factors. With a Google search I found that there was some evidence smoking could be associated with female reproductive cancers but a cause and effect has yet to be established. Which is why I believe penile cancer and vulvar cancer were not listed. They also did not even mention cervical cancer in this article! Some of the studies I read showed 1.5-3% increase chance of developing these reproductive cancers in females who are/were smokers. For the male reproductive cancers it is much higher and has been studied more (which is probably why it is higher). I also asked about the other exposures we have such as being covered in soot, dirty clothes, baking in smoke, having diesel fuel soak in your skin, etc and she didn’t really have an answer without digging into studies and such.

    Like you said I think this is a great first step and hopefully those other cancers will be picked up in the three year period. The next step would be to have funding for earlier and more often cancer/disease screening (and actually getting people to do it).

  10. I’m a retired California state firefighter; Cal fire, which we specialized in wildland firefighting. We all get the Big “C”.
    After being retired for about 17 years I got follicular lymphoma. Luckily I’m an army veteran and the VA is picking up my treatment. This is really good news for my Federal firefighters Brothers and Sisters.. Awesome!

  11. I suffer life like consequences from treatment related to a cancer on the list. I paid for all my own treatment and blew all my leave after 15+ years. Can this bill help people like me?

  12. I suffer life like consequences from treatment related to a cancer on the list. I paid for all my own treatment and blew all my leave after 15+ years. Can this bill help people like me?

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