Certain diseases are considered job-related for county and city firefighters, but federal fire employees don’t get the same benefits. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, has authored a bill to give these so-called presumptive disability benefits to federal fire employees like the ones with Vandenberg Air Force Base and the U.S. Forest Service.
As of now, they have to prove the exposure was on-the-job and pick out a specific incident, according to Chris Mahon with the International Association of Firefighters and California Professional Firefighters Association.
He said a change is long overdue.
“It’s simply not fair or right,” Mahon said during a joint news conference held Monday at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.
Federal firefighters fight alongside county and city firefighters for wildfires and mutual aid incidents, but don’t have the same disability benefits, Capps said.
If a county or city firefighter has a heart attack or gets lung disease, it’s assumed the injury or disease is connected to the dangers of firefighting. With this bill, federal firefighters would automatically get disability benefits if they have a disease related to firefighting, such as heart disease, lung disease, certain cancers, tuberculosis, hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus.
The discrepancy between federal and local fire employees has existed for decades, Mahon said.
“We’re exposed to as much as everybody else, but we don’t have the presumptive laws,” said Michael Provencio with the Vandenberg Fire Department.
The 80-person team responds alongside Lompoc Fire for structure fires and many other incidents in addition to wildfires, missile launches and Vandenberg-specific calls.
“We fight the same fires, side by side, and do all that’s asked of us,” Santa Barbara fire Capt. Tony Pighetti said, adding that city firefighters have coverage for themselves if they get ill and their families are taken care of.
He said the department has had several members die from cancer, and exposure to certain diseases is all part of the job.
Capps has introduced the bill before, in 2011, and a version of the same legislation was introduced in 2001. Capps said she doesn’t expect opposition, but that it’s difficult to get something passed within a two-year session of Congress. Bills have to be reintroduced every time a new session starts.
Firefighter unions brought the issue to her attention, she noted.