Firefighters hope Governor will sign cancer bill

ALBANY—A bill passed by the state legislature would grant presumptive cancer coverage to volunteer firefighters in New York State, that includes Columbia County’s 32 volunteer fire companies and departments.

But before the bill can become law it must be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

This bill should have been passed by the Legislature a long time ago,” Columbia County Volunteer Firefighters Association President Mike Cesternino told The Columbia Paper this week.

He said a similar law is already in effect for paid firefighters, but a bill for volunteers has failed several times to make it through the political process. The measure would be “excellent for volunteers all over the state,” Mr. Cesternino said.

The law, which requires all volunteer fire districts, departments or companies to obtain insurance for all eligible members, would provide:

A lump sum of $25,000 for any qualifying volunteer firefighter who contracts melanoma, as well as cancers of the digestive, hematological, lymphatic, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast, and reproductive systems

Thirty-six months of disability benefits (at $1,500 per month) in the event the volunteer firefighter is unable to work due to their illness

A $50,000 death benefit for a volunteer firefighter’s family in the event should they succumb to cancer.

One firefighter who might have been helped had the law been enacted years ago was Brian McQueen. A volunteer firefighter for 39-years, past chief with the Whitesboro Fire Department, deputy fire coordinator in Oneida County and a director with the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), Mr. McQueen was diagnosed at the age of 58, December 24, 2013, with B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma, one of the fastest growing cancers in the fire service today.

With no major cancer care centers in Central New York, Mr. McQueen told The Columbia Paper by phone this week, he travelled to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City for treatment. The facility is 4½ hours away from his home and for 6 months he traveled back and forth and even lived in New York City for 6 weeks to receive the prescribed intensified modulated radiation therapy.

To get to the facility, he drove to Albany and took a train to the city.

Mr. McQueen said the cancer, which appeared as a growth in the side of his neck, is the third leading cause of cancer deaths among firefighters and is related to carcinogens in gases and chemicals firefighters breathe in or absorb through their skin. It is an “occupational cancer,” he said.

He calculates the total cost of his medical bills at $298,000 plus hotel costs at $325/night and train fare at $184/roundtrip. Food was extra and not cheap, he noted, and there is no accounting for the cost of being away from home and family.

Mr. McQueen said the new law would most certainly assist firefighters with the financial implications of needing to get treatment in other locations and with support while being out of work.

In an effort to help Mr. McQueen, fellow firefighters offered monetary support to help him defray travel, food and hotel expenses by selling helmet stickers with his badge number, 271, on them. Mr. Queen suggested something bigger and better was needed, not for him but for others. So the Believe 271 Fund was founded. The non-profit foundation has already awarded funds to local firefighters with cancer. Visit www.believe271.com for more information.

Offering the benefit of his experience to other firefighters with cancer, Mr. McQueen said, “You should know you have great support in fellow fire service members and cancer can be beat if you put your mind to it.”

Dave Chapman, an active Chatham firefighter for 54 years, told The Columbia Paper he has been involved with the proposed law since its inception. The legislative liaison for the Columbia County Fire Chief’s Association and the Hudson Mohawk Volunteer Firefighters Association, Mr. Chapman said the bill has been on the agenda for a few years.

Two years ago Mr. Chapman said he underwent treatment for prostate cancer. Though he cannot be sure the cancer was related to his years of service, he said, over the years the toxicity of smoke has changed. “Cars, houses, furniture, carpets and buildings are all made with cancer-causing material. It’s a whole different game.”

Mr. Chapman said he is “very much in favor of this bill” and has contacted area Assemblyman Steven F. McLaughlin (R-107th), who along with Assemblyman Peter D. Lopez (R-102nd) are listed among the multiple sponsors of the bill.

According to Mr. Chapman, the Council of Mayors and the Association of Towns opposed the bill, saying it would raise the cost of doing business for small municipalities with volunteer fire companies.

Mr. Chapman said he certainly hopes the governor will sign the legislation, noting he “would be surprised if he vetoed this important piece of legislation.”

A call to the governor’s office to find out whether he plans to sign the measure into law was not returned.

Eligible volunteer firefighters must have five or more years of service in the protection of life and property from fire and have successfully passed a physical examination on entry to the firefighter service that did not reveal any evidence of cancers.

The bill targets the following cancers: prostate or breast, lymphatic, hematological digestive, urinary, neurological, or reproductive systems, or melanoma.

Lung and heart disease are covered separately.

The law calls for a fire district, department or company to show proof of insurance coverage or the ability to pay such compensation for all eligible volunteer firefighters required by the new law by January 1, 2019.

Today is a great day for the 110,000 men and women of the Volunteer Fire Service who place themselves in harm’s way to protect their fellow New Yorkers. The Assembly and the state Senate have passed legislation that grants presumptive cancer coverage to volunteers, something that is sorely needed as rates of firefighter cancer continue to rise,” President of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), Ken Pienkowski, said in a June 20 statement.

We now call upon Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign this bill into law without delay, and ensure that New York’s volunteer firefighters have the protections than 21st century firefighting requires,” he said.

To contact Diane Valden email

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