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Editorial: Assembly continues to turn its back on volunteer firefighters exposed to toxic smoke

Few will soon forget the inferno at the High Tread International plant in Lockport last summer that sadly claimed the life of a teenager. The fire burned four days, billowing toxic smoke.

Nor will folks around here forget the November fire at the former Bethlehem Steel plant the mayor called “catastrophic.”

It, too, poured hazardous smoke into the air around the plant.

Yet, the volunteer firefighters who fought those blazes seem to be forgotten by the New York State Assembly.

Members have within their power to expand the existing Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefits Law to include various forms of cancer. This is coverage already offered to career, paid firefighters and for good reason.

Fighting fires in the modern era carries with it new risks, such as contracting cancer due to toxins in the materials that are burning. When firefighters enter a building, they do so without regard to personal safety. It is an admirable duty and one these brave men and women willingly signed up for. However, as Robin Schott, chairman of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), said, “We don’t volunteer for cancer.”

Expansion of the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefits Law would cover all incidences of melanoma, as well as cancers of the digestive, hematological, lymphatic, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast and reproductive systems. It updates the current law and addresses risks firefighters face in today’s world of lithium battery-powered smartphones and televisions encased in plastic. And then there are the vacant industrial sites.

The bill has been approved in the State Senate in three consecutive sessions, including the current one. But it has not made it out of committee in the Assembly. This is wrong.
Volunteer firefighters play an important role around New York State. Without them, coverage would be slower, placing both lives and property at higher risk.

FASNY estimates volunteer firefighters save New York taxpayers a few billion dollars each year and, at the same time, provide emergency response and firefighting services to 89 percent of the municipalities in the state. Albany needs to attract more of these voluteers, not discourage them.

Volunteers face the same risks as paid firefighters who already have this benefit. The Assembly should pass the bill.

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