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Volunteer firefighters push for cancer coverage

Volunteer firefighters say they are at greater risk than the general population of contracting cancer due to toxins they encounter on calls, and they are pushing for additional medical coverage through state legislation.

The Firemen's Association of the State of New York wants to expand the existing Volunteer Firefighters' Benefit Law to include various forms of cancer. The association said that coverage is already offered to career, paid firefighters.

"We don't volunteer for cancer," said Robin Schott, chairman of FASNY's legislative committee, at a briefing for volunteer firefighter officials in the Town of Wheatfield on Sunday.

Bruce Mack, president of the Western New York Volunteer Firemen's Association, said volunteer firefighters face the same toxic dangers as the paid firefighters they work alongside, mentioning the thick, black smoke from blazes at the former Bethlehem Steel complex in Lackawanna and at the High Tread International plant in Lockport as examples of what they encounter.

"They're exposed to the exact same things in every fire," said Mack, who is also chief of the Frontier Fire Department in Wheatfield. "Just because a fire's within the (boundaries) of a career fire department doesn't mean that the internal components are any different than what is happening in an area that's covered by a volunteer fire department."

And firefighters face greater risks of exposure to toxins than in decades past, with so many more synthetic materials used in homes that catch fire, Mack said. "Think of the TV set you used to have growing up. It was in a wood case. Now, it's plastic."

FASNY estimates there are more than 110,000 volunteer firefighters across the state. The group says it is still studying the cost of the expanded coverage for cancer treatment, but noted that 35 other states are already providing the benefit to their volunteer firefighters.

The State Senate has approved the bill in three consecutive sessions, including the current one. But the legislation has yet to get out of committee in the Assembly for a vote.

"Some of the concerns on it are the costs to the municipalities, but FASNY has made several tradeoffs to reduce the costs," Schott said. He cited cost-reducing examples like a requirement that someone have at least five years' experience as an interior firefighter – those who venture into burning structures – in order to be eligible for the coverage.

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