Bill to help first responders with occupational diseases moves to House floor

Bill to help first responders with occupational diseases moves to House floor
Despite the advancement in fire equipment and technology, first responders are still more likely to get cancer and other diseases than the general population. A bill that could help them financially deal with medical treatment is in jeopardy sitting in two House committees.

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The people who protect us are hoping a bill under consideration can help protect them.

In fact, chiefs and firefighters on the Coast are pushing for a new law designed to help Mississippi first responders facing life-threatening illnesses they may have contracted while performing life-saving acts.

Sen. Joel Carter authored the bill that would provide disability and death benefits to first responders with occupational cancer and other diseases.

The bill passed the Senate floor and made it out alive of 2 House committees.

“These guys go and fight fire and rescue people every day,” said Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney. “They rely on their job skills to get through that. They know they have the skills and the ability to get through that. This is something they have no control over. They have no control over whether they are going to contract cancer or not.”

Studies have proven that first responders, who are exposed to multiple risk factors, have a higher chance of certain diseases than the general public.

It has required a cultural change.

“That’s being forced on us because fires changed,” said Gulfport Fire Chief Michael Beyerstedt. “A fire 30, 40 years ago was simple natural products, now everything is petroleum products, and so, the chemicals and the agents are firefighters are being exposed to every day are significantly different.”

Fire chiefs said they are doing what they can to help, including better equipment and better practices to limit exposure.

“The more research we get on how we contract cancer, how it’s ingested into our bodies correlates to the equipment that we wear and how we perform our job,” Boney added.

Now, they said, it’s time for the state to help financially.

This is a bill that could help people like Lt. Ryker Hasleden with the Gulfport Fire Department.

“I was diagnosed with cancer in 2017,” he said. “Late in the year, I had surgery and was out of work. My wife is a stay-at-home mom. We have a disabled child, so I’m the primary bread winner, and it affected our finances greatly.”

Kevin Dill with the Biloxi Fire Department has been out for eight weeks after having surgery for kidney cancer.

Like Hasleden, he’s the sole bread-winner. He said he will always worry that when he’s doing his job, there could be long-term effects.

“It would definitely be in the back of my mind,” Dill said. “Not only my mind, but on my wife’s and kids’ minds as well.”

Regardless, he said his call to duty is stronger than any personal fears.

“You get called to an emergency incident, you do what you’ve got to do to get the job done. You don’t think about anything else. You’re not thinking about your life, you’re thinking about everyone else’s," he said.

Mississippi is one of only three states in the country that does not have legislation protecting first responders.

This bill would apply to first responders who have completed 10 or more years of service and not to exceed five years after retirement.

The source of funding would come from a $1 fee levied on every specialty car tag issued in the state.

The bill will now head to the House floor. For more information on the bill, visit here.

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