Firefighters frustrated over lack of movement with firefighter cancer bill

Author: CBS / Madison Alworth
Published: Updated:
Firefighter battles the flames. (Credit: AP)
Firefighter battles the flames. (Credit: AP)

More than 60 representatives from both sides of the aisle have co-sponsored a bill that would provide protection and financial coverage for firefighters who are diagnosed with certain types of cancer.

Over 500 pairs of boots with photos attached lined the steps of the capitol building on March 7th, representing firefighters who are either fighting or have perished from cancer. The demonstration was in support of House Bill 587.

Firefighter Mike Billek was in attendance that day for his father.

“He ended up retiring a little early due to the fact that he had come down with cancer,” Mike said.

Mike’s father, Captain Joseph Billek served as a firefighter for 28.5 years before his diagnosis. “He was diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 49, and ultimately about six months after he retired early, he passed away from melanoma at the age of 51.”

Captain Joseph Billek is not unique.

Southwest Floridan Tom “Bull” Hill is a retired Orange County firefighter and has been a longtime supporter of the bill. Last year, Hill walked over 800 miles as he trekked from Key West to Tallahassee.

Firefighters have a higher chance of developing certain cancers. The CDC says firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population.

A bill going through the house would cover firefighters who develop 21 different types of cancer. Melanoma is included in that group. Representative Fentrice Driskell is one of the over 60 representatives co-sponsoring the bill.

“I support House Bill 857 because I think it is a good and necessary bill,” Driskell said. “Firefighters are amongst our first responders, and I believe that we need to make sure they are well taken care of when it comes to their health and when it comes to their benefits.”

But time could be running out.

The bill has come to a standstill in the House. It currently sits in the Oversight, Transparency & Public Management Subcommittee which has no more meetings set at this point.

We reached out to the Chairman of the subcommittee, Representative Scott Plakon, multiple times to ask if this will change, he has yet to get back to us.

Representative Driskell already has her eyes on next year.

“Unfortunately we are coming up on the time in session when the subcommittees are going to stop meeting and we’ll be focused solely on the legislative session,” Driskell said. “Time is running out on this bill for this session, although there is a possibility, as you just mentioned, that the subcommittees could continue to meet next week.

“But if it is not heard within the next week or so, its probably going to have to be a bill we try to pursue again next session.”

Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Anitere Flores from Florida’s 39th district also commented on the bill.

DeSantis left the following statement:

“I can’t comment on the bill. I just don’t memorize the bill numbers. When I was in Congress, I didn’t even know my own bill numbers for the bills I had it’s just not, so I need to know a little bit more about the bill, we are, I know the CFO is spearheading different initiatives to support our firefighters and it’s something I’ve been supportive of but I don’t know that particular legislation.”

Senator Flores left the following statement:

“This would not be incredibly costly to local governments we’ve seen some have already stepped up on their own so it’s not very costly, it’s the right thing to do. This is a message we want to send to our first responders. they have our backs day in and day out and we have to have their back when they need us.”

Firefighters are susceptible to cancer but lack proper insurance

(Originally published Feb. 25, 2019)

Every time a firefighter runs into a burning building, they become a magnet for contaminants and carcinogens, without insurance for their loved ones if they eventually develop cancer from the exposure.

“It’s an epidemic that is horrible right now in the fire service,” said Tom “Bull” Hill, Carrying My Brothers Burden organizer and former Orange County firefighter.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer than an average person.

It is a statistic that is not lost on Hill.

“The state deems that firemen don’t need any kind of help or protection when they get cancer even though it’s an on-the-job illness,” Hill said. “When you die, your family is left with no insurance.”

Several fire departments in SWFL are equipped with a decontamination kit to help prevent cancer immediately after firefighters respond to calls. But, Florida is one of eight states that does not provide cancer benefits for firefighters, which is why Hill, a retired firefighter from Central Florida, is on a mission to spark change.

Last year, Hill walked over 800 miles as he trekked from Key West to Tallahassee.

“The inspiration was to fulfill a couple promises,” Hill said. “One man before he died said ‘would you please walk the State of Florida so something big will happen?’”

This year, he is taking the journey up the west coast.

“I walk for a Danielle D. Benidento who died at the age of 49 from colon cancer,” said Heather Mazurkiewicz of North Collier Fire. “She was a firefighter with South Trail and really got the awareness started here in Lee County.”

Dress in full gear, Mazurkiewicz said it is a small sacrifice for something more significant.

“There’s a bill in the Senate and I would like to see that the house side can get it to a committee,” Mazurkiewicz said, “to vote on it and pass it.”

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