Keep an eye on state-level firefighting bills

Rick Markley, Editor-in-Chief

There’s a great deal of attention right now on what the federal government is doing and how proposed changes will impact fire and EMS departments. And, rightly so, there are some major funding cuts being floated by the White House that may drastically change demand for service and available funding.

But there are also very important battles taking place in statehouses around the country that have a profound impact on firefighters’ ability to recover physically, mentally and financially from work-related illness. While the trend has been toward more laws protecting firefighters, some state lawmakers are bucking the trend.

Just this week lawmakers serving on a Montana House committee snuffed legislation that would have provided money for firefighters who developed work-related lung disease. The bill would give firefighters access to a presumptive illness fund if they were denied a workers’ compensation claim.

Shockingly, one of the lawmakers who opposed the bill said that firefighters knew the risk when they signed and went in with “eyes wide open.”

Of course, that comment is morally wrong, reckless and ignorant.

It’s ignorant because it is largely untrue. We are still learning the breadth of the link between firefighting and cancer. And for many old timers, there was barely suspicion of a connection to cancers let alone wide-eyed, hard proof.

They did not know what they were getting into.

It’s reckless because nobody in their right mind would tell a returning soldier, “Sorry you lost both legs to an IED, but you knew what you were getting into, so no benefits for you.” Nor would anyone tell a police officer that they knew bad guys had guns, and if you get shot multiple times, tough luck.

It’s also reckless because it harms our ability to recruit and retain firefighters for paid on-call or volunteer positions.

Another trend in the fire service is that it is increasingly difficult to find and keep people willing and able to fight fire as a part-time job. Likewise, we know very well that many municipalities either cannot or will not pay for full-time career firefighters.

One way to reward and honor those who do step up for this difficult job is to provide some safety net for when things go very wrong for them. Frankly, it is the community’s duty to support its firefighters.

In addition to Montana, Alaska made news this week for its treatment of firefighters.

Members of Alaska’s House of Representatives voted unanimously to provide free health insurance to the family members of firefighters and police officers who die in the line of duty.

The Alaska bill was first pitched by a Republican last year, but it died in the state senate. This bill, sponsored by a Democrat, is heading back to the senate for a vote.

The Montana bill already passed its senate and could still be revived by the house panel.

The lessons from these bill battles is that we cannot afford to take our eye off the state legislature ball. This is where a lot of laws are passed or killed that directly affect our ability to carry out our mission and to live a long and healthy life.

Another lesson from Montana is that lawmakers often have absolutely no idea what it means to be a firefighter.

What this all means is that it is important for each fire department to maintain contact with their state elected officials. Regularly meeting with them when they are not at the capital is critical for developing meaningful relationships. Suiting them up in bunkers for a safe live burn will command instant respect and leave them with a profound memory.

It is also important to work through state firefighter associations and fire unions to keep your finger on the pulse of proposed legislation. Knowing who to call, when to call and what to call about will help move key bills through the pipeline. State fire associations are a good resource for coordinating this effort.

While Washington policies are important, don’t let all the chainsaw juggling and flaming sword swallowing of the D.C. political circus distract you from the meaningful laws being hashed out in your own backyard.

On a final note, as you mourn the tragic loss of firefighters Beasley and Sykes, review your own roadside response safety procedures and consider how they can be made safer for those on scene.

If you need ideas for best practices, visit the Emergency Responder Safety Institute. They have tutorials and certification courses that will save lives.

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