Legislation that would require cities and counties to carry special cancer coverage for firefighters passed the state House on Tuesday and moves on to the Senate.
“It’s something that needs to be done,” said Gordon Henderson, executive director of the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council. “These are cancers that occur at a higher rate in firefighters than in other occupations.”
Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, is a co-sponsor of House Bill 146, along with fellow N.W. Georgia lawmaker Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun. Floyd County Reps. Katie Dempsey and Eddie Lumsden also supported the measure, which passed 171 to 1.
Henderson, who was chief of the Rome-Floyd County Fire Department before taking the top slot at the GFSTC, said 38 states require some kind of cancer coverage for firefighters.
“It’s a very real problem, especially with all the synthetics that go into a house now and the different things firefighters respond to,” Henderson said.
For example, Rome-Floyd firefighters handled a 2014 fire and a 2009 hydrochloric acid spill at the Bekaert plant. Both forced temporary evacuations of the area.
Henderson said another big issue is exposure to the diesel exhaust from fire trucks — although more care is being taken today. Recent fire station upgrades and new construction in Floyd County specifically focused on separating the air in the garage from the sleeping quarters.
“When I first came to work, you slept on top of the engines or right next to them,” Henderson said.
HB 146 specified coverage for 17 named cancers, plus leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Henderson noted that the list includes some cancers primarily associated with women, in a nod to “the makeup of fire stations now.”
The policies would provide a lump-sum payout upon diagnosis and monthly payments for up to 36 months if the firefighter is unable to work.
“It provides some immediate assistance to them if they develop cancer,” Coomer said. “And then some mid-term assistance while they either go through recovery or become eligible for other kind of compensation.”
Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a firefighter cancer coverage bill last year, but that one would have required firefighters to make a workers compensation claim and demonstrate the cancer was work-related.
“The sponsor worked closely with the governor and those concerns were substantially addressed,” Coomer said, adding that HB 146 is supported by the Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
Rome Commissioner Evie McNiece, the city’s legislative representative to GMA, said the cost of the additional coverage is unclear at this point. She called it “another unfunded mandate” from the state. She also noted that many firefighters work for more than one department and some volunteer as well.
“Yes, we support it (but) … on the surface we all want to think we’re helping our firefighters, but there are still a lot of issues to work out.”
Henderson called it a compromise bill, saying firefighters would have preferred legislation that presumed all cancers are work-related.
“But it’s a good bill and it’s a workable solution,” he said.