Jonathan Sharp: Our volunteer firefighters are bypassed by Cancer Presumptive Laws

Letter to the editor

It is astonishing to realize that 12 million Florida citizens, over half of Florida’s population, depend on volunteer firefighters to safeguard their communities and families. Of the total estimated 1,041,200 firefighters across the country, 676,900 are volunteers (so 65% of firefighters are volunteers), whereas their employed counterparts only make up 35%.

The backbone of Florida’s firefighting operations consists of 34.6% volunteer firefighters, spread throughout 200 stations, while career firefighters make up only 39%. While career firefighters benefit from Cancer Presumptive Laws, volunteer firefighters who willingly sacrifice their well-being are left unprotected and defenseless, since Florida does not offer benefits for work-related disabilities to volunteers. This oblivious attitude represents a cruel exclusion and denial of critical support for a wide range of conditions related to their activity, such as cancers, immune system dysfunction, and reproductive problems. 

Volunteer firefighters risk their lives at the expense of their own family life, money-making opportunities, personal time, and health. They work long and irregular hours, and they are always on call. Training is provided on their own time and money. These volunteers are often locals who are deeply connected to the communities they serve; they have strong bonds with fellow members. Due to the proximity and familiarity with the areas they support, they can quickly respond in times of emergencies, so often they develop a sense of unity and trust within neighborhoods. Their local expertise and understanding of smaller communities empower them to offer a unique level of invaluable protection. Communities depend on the local knowledge of volunteers.

State legislation 

Despite the significant reliance and remarkable effort, our volunteer powerhouse is left in obscurity. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) identified that more than half of the states in the U.S. exclude volunteer firefighters from Cancer Presumption Laws. Only full-time employees are covered by cancer presumptive laws. As part of this troubling reality, Florida is among the states that turn a blind eye to this matter. Dishearteningly, only professional firefighters are eligible for compensation and cancer treatment in Florida. Often with limited resources, less protection, and constantly on duty, volunteers can accumulate more years of toxic exposure than their employed counterparts. In this case, compensation and cancer treatment become questions of human decency and moral duty, not just matters of public policy.

Volunteer firefighters and PFAS exposure

Cancer presumptive laws are designed to provide benefits to firefighters who develop certain types of cancers, acknowledging the inherent risks they face in the line of duty, particularly during PFAS exposure. Deadly and almost indestructible, PFAS are integral components of firefighting equipment that has been widely used for many years. Once considered ‘safe as soap’ and ‘relatively harmless,’ states are now attempting to gradually phase them out, consequent to recent findings that have uncovered numerous grave health impacts.

Scientific evidence, empirical data, and clinical research connect various cancers such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and thyroid cancer to PFAS exposure. It is no surprise that some laws cover up to 21 different types of cancers. Nicknamed ‘forever chemicals,’ the highly toxic PFAS have spread through soil, water, and air, causing nationwide contamination above and beyond their original locations of use. Mindful of their extreme toxicity even at minimal exposure, firefighters have daily and direct contact with the chemicals. Hence, the incidence of cancer among firefighters is notably higher compared to the general public. In fact, a Rutgers University study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has concluded that volunteer firefighters confront higher levels of chemicals in their blood than their employed counterparts or general public. 

Volunteers face the same toxic smoke, carcinogens, chemical burns, and raging fires. The exclusion from cancer presumptive laws subjects volunteers to further battles, beyond firefighting. It is important that we honor their service, recognize their sacrifices, and protect them from an uncertain fate. 

Jonathan Sharp, CFO of Environmental Litigation Group

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  • These are nice thoughts, but since many volunteer fire fighters arent covered by workers compensation because they arent part of a government entity, you end up with the question of who pays for the coverage. Practically, the current requirements are slowly eliminating volunteer firefighter programs because they cost too much to keep in operation. So Counties or the State have to step in or create special districts to levy taxes to pay for services. Then you have coverage.

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