The families of firefighters and other first responders who die of occupational cancer will be eligible for Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program (PSOB) funds if Congress passes the Honoring our Fallen Heroes Act.
Congressmen Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ-09), Rob Menendez (D-NJ-08) and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ) updated responders about that and other legislation during a meeting Thursday at North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue.
President Joe Biden told the IAFF at their annual convention last month: “…I support it. Congress should introduce it, pass it, and get it to my desk for me to sign it.”
His promise brought applause from those attending the legislative session.
Just 17 days later, Pascrell and Carlos Giménez (R-FL-28) introduced the legislation in the House while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) proposed the bill in the Senate.
During Thursday’s event, Pascrell, the longtime co-chair of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, said: “Every day, thousands of firefighters suit up and put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe. These brave men and women encounter countless dangers on the job, including exposure to deadly carcinogens. Cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters and the federal government must have their backs.”
He noted that there was a special reason the meeting was being held at site. “We spoke at North Hudson Regional where they continue to mourn the loss of Eduardo Diaz to cancer six years ago. And it’s been nearly three years since we lost Paterson Firefighter, and my good friend, Jerry Behnke to this terrible disease. I introduced the Honoring our Fallen Heroes Act to guarantee that first responders and their families get occupational cancer benefits without delay or red tape. Nothing less is acceptable.”
Biden also praised responders during his recent visit with the career firefighters’ union: “Look, no one is saying you didn’t know this was a dangerous profession when you joined it. But that’s who you are. It’s about helping other people. Like I said to a coup- — a couple of you downstairs, I don’t know any other group of people who risk their lives to save someone’s home or property and the next day are out there on a corner with a boot raising money to help them rebuild their home. Name me anybody who does that. Name me anybody but you guys that do that. It’s who you are. You’re incredible.”
Sen. Menendez told group Thursday: “The Honoring our Fallen Heroes Act, would strengthen a crucial safety net that first responders and their families rely on and I look forward to working with colleagues to get this bipartisan common-sense measure passed swiftly in the Senate. Equally importantly, Congress must reauthorize the AFG and SAFER grant programs as soon as we return to session next week. These two programs are cornerstones of our effort to recruit and retain firefighters in New Jersey, and have distributed more than $200 million to communities throughout the Garden State since 2015.”
Congressman Menendez agrees: “Our firefighters and first responders selflessly put their communities ahead of themselves, often sacrificing their health and safety while doing so. That is why I am proud to co-sponsor the Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act, which would finally provide federal death and disability benefits to men and women who are stricken by cancer as a result of line-of-duty exposures. I want to thank Congressman Pascrell for his leadership on this issue and I look forward to working with him to pass this important legislation.”
The PSOB program provides a one-time federal death and disability benefit payment of $422,035 to first responders who die or are permanently disabled in the line of duty and monthly education assistance of $1,401 for their children or spouse. While medical conditions like heart attacks, strokes, and COVID-19 are presumed to be line of duty deaths for the purposes of PSOB, occupational cancer is not.
In 2015, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a multi-year study which found that firefighters are 9% more likely to develop cancer and 14% more likely to die from cancer relative to the general population. Last year, cancer was the leading cause of death among firefighters, accounting for 74% of line of duty deaths according to the IAFF.
On July 9, 2018, legislation sponsored by Rep. Pascrell and Sen. Menendez creating a firefighter cancer registry for the first time was signed into law. Their bill required the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create a national cancer registry for firefighters to monitor and study the relationship between career-long exposure to dangerous fumes and toxins and the incidence of cancer in firefighters so to develop better protective gear and prevention techniques.
In 2016, Pascrell and Sen. Menendez first announced the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act in May 2016 during a news conference at Clifton, New Jersey Fire Station 5, where they were joined by dozens of firefighters, including retired Haddon Heights Fire Chief Gene Dannenfelster, who later lost his battle with cancer.
The Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act is endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation (NFFF), Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), and Sergeants Benevolent Association of the NYPD (SBA).