The following was an op ed to the Patriot Ledger on Saturday March 10, 2018 by PFFM Pres. Rich MacKinnon
Legislature needs to protect firefighters
In2014, Plymouth firefighter Anthony Colarusso, 38, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer; a type of cancer that a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked to firefighting. An 8-year veteran of the fire department, Colarusso had accrued 93 shifts of sick leave as he and his wife, Christina, faced months of doctors appointments and grueling treatments.
He very quickly exhausted his earned medical leave and vacation days.
Though his union and firefighters across the state begged the town to provide coverage for Colarusso in his time of need for a man who devoted his life to helping others in need, no aid was forthcoming.
For 93 days, he went without a paycheck or health insurance while fighting a cancer likely caused by occupational exposure. Then just 15 months after receiving his diagnosis, Anthony Colarusso, who was also a U.S. Navy veteran, died at the age of 39.
It is easy to see the dangers and health risks confronted by firefighters by reading a newspaper or simply turning on the nightly news. But, firefighters are confronted by even greater risks.
The leading cause of line of duty deaths among firefighters is cancer.
The multi-year CDC study found higher rates of certain types of cancer among firefighters than in the general population. It’s believed occupational exposure to chemicals and other toxins puts firefighters at increased risk of being diagnosed and dying from certain cancers. The study also found that firefighters were younger than expected when diagnosed with certain cancers.
Nationwide, firefighters are 9 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent more likely to die of cancer than the general public. Firefighters have a 62 percent higher risk of esophageal cancer, are diagnosed with testicular cancer and mesothelioma twice as much as the general population, and contract multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, skin, brain, prostate and colon cancers almost one and a half times more frequently than non firefighters.
Cancer is a line-of-duty death for firefighters.
Over the past two years, 235 active firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer, 107 were able to return to work, 99 were forced to retire, and 29 succumbed to their illness.
While Massachusetts law acknowledges these cancers are job-related as it pertains to retirement, there is a gap in the law large enough to drive a fire engine through. A firefighter who injures a knee while fighting a fire has greater coverage and protections than one who contracts cancer from the products of that same fire. Like our fellow “jake” Anthony Colarusso, after their sick time runs out, so does their coverage.
Throughout the fire service, efforts are being made to reduce the instances of cancer that are killing our firefighters, but action must be taken to alleviate the hardships taken on by our brave brothers and sisters and their families as they work to regain their health. New practices like washing gear and decontaminating equipment and apparatus are being embraced by fire departments across the state. Additional gear and new technologies are being utilized to protect firefighters from dangerous carcinogens at fire scenes. However, nothing has been done to ensure firefighters are afforded the time and health care necessary to become well.
Legislation is now on Beacon Hill that would treat cancer among firefighters as a work-related injury. Nearly 40 states have already passed similar legislation. This important bill would put in place the necessary protections to allow firefighters with cancer, people like Anthony Colarusso, to receive the care they need without adding additional and unnecessary strains on them and their families.
For every motor vehicle accident, every overdose, every time an elder calls about something as simple as a chirping smoke detector, firefighters answer the call. It is a firefighter’s duty to protect those in need. Now firefighters need the Legislature to protect them.
Richard MacKinnon Jr. is president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts.
He lives in Whitman and works for the local fire department.
RICHARD MACKINNON JR.