Georgia Addressing Firefighters’ Cancer Risk

This week’s Courier Herald column:

As Georgia’s economic fortunes have improved over the past several years, the state has made an effort to reinvest in those that serve us. The economic downturn meant sparse times for taxpayers, which meant fewer tax dollars flowing into state coffers for several years. Public sector employees bore the brunt of many of the sacrifices.

Some positions were eliminated entirely. State employees and teachers experienced furloughs. They were asked to continue to do the same, with less. As we saw improvement, teachers were at the front of the line to see furloughs restored. They also received consistent, if not overwhelming, adjustments to their pay scales during a period most state employees received flat salaries year over year. This may or may not be related to the fact that local boards of education are the largest employers in many Georgia counties – and they vote in equally impressive numbers.

Earlier this year it was announced that Georgia’s state law enforcement officers – the Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Department of Natural Resources officers and the like – would receive 20 percent pay increases. It seems in the years of skipping raises Georgia had fallen to among the lowest paid in the country, and the ability to hire and retain officers was becoming impossible. The House has passed a mid-year amended budget to reflect these raises, and the Senate is expected to do so soon.

One group of public sector employees that also put their lives on the line for everyday Georgians is also looking to the legislature for some assistance. Georgia’s firefighters – almost all of whom have salaries funded by local governments and thus don’t look to the state legislature for their pay raises – are instead looking for a solution to compensation for job related cancer treatments.

When a firefighter runs into a burning building, they are battling more than just flames. The long term enemy of the firefighter is smoke. Contained within the smoke are a litany of carcinogens. According to a report by WSB radio’s Sandra Parrish, firefighters are 65% more likely to get cancer than any other public profession.

Last year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill that would allow Georgia firemen to file for workers’ compensation if by “preponderance of evidence” it could be shown that their cancer was work related. The Governor vetoed that legislation, stating “I am concerned that codifying an exception for one occupation at this relatively low standard of proof with no time limitation on diagnosis or restriction on eligible types of cancer is a broad solution for a problem not yet abundantly demonstrated in Georgia.” He also noted that there had yet to be a case where a firefighter had filed for workers’ compensation for a cancer case.

Thus, preferring to avoid setting too broad a precedent to open up workers’ compensation for new classifications of claims (and thus boosting the cost of that insurance in Georgia), the legislature is working on a new solution for firefighters this year. Rep Micah Gravley of Douglasville is again carrying a bill that has the public backing of Speaker David Ralston.

It is a firefighter from Gilmer County in Ralston’s district, Brian Scudder, that has become the example of why the bill is needed. Scudder was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, but only missed two shifts during 18 months of treatment. He told WSB’s Parish, ““I had to keep my job. I loved my career and I didn’t want to lose it. So you just made yourself do it. I didn’t have a choice,”

The new bill makes firefighters eligible for private insurance policies. Firefighters who have been on the job for at least one year would be eligible for a lump sum payment of $25,000, plus an additional 60 percent of their salary for up to three years. Volunteer firefighters could receive $1,500 per month for 42 months.

This version of the bill is expected to earn the Governor’s signature. That signature contains a message. The state’s men and women who run toward the fire when others are running away will know that when they have our back, the people of Georgia have theirs.

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