© 2021 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics and Government

Fighting for more health coverage for volunteer firefighters

Ellen Abbott
Brian McQueen, a longtime volunteer with the Whitesboro Fire Department, speaking on Thursday. McQueen was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma several years ago.

State lawmakers and volunteer firefighters are putting pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill that would provide better coverage for volunteers who develop cancer because of the job they do.

Brian McQueen has been a longtime volunteer with the Whitesboro Fire Department. When he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma several years ago, he was forced to take on the cost of much of the treatment himself. He doesn’t want any other volunteers to have to face that.

"Currently only paid firefighters are afforded additional benefits in the event of a cancer diagnosis. Is that really fair? We run into the same fires that our paid firefighters go into,” McQueen said. “As a matter of fact, sometimes there’s a volunteer firefighter behind the paid firefighter fighting the same fire. But that volunteer firefighter’s not covered.”

The legislation would fill in significant gaps in benefits for volunteers who may not have coverage for many forms of cancer associated with firefighting. Advocates of the legislation, which passed both the Senate and Assembly, are urging Cuomo to sign the bill as soon as he receives it. State Sen. Dave Valesky (D-Oneida) and Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) are those pushing for the legislation to become law.

“There’s overwhelming support in communities across the state that matches the overwhelming and unanimous support in both houses of the legislature. So the bill will be scheduled to be delivered to the governor from the legislature,” Valesky said. “The support is solid, and we’re very hopeful and confident that he’ll take the correct action.”

Statistics show firefighters are twice as likely to develop certain cancers because of encounters with carcinogens and other toxins during the course of fighting flames.

“The fact is that cancer is very real in the fire service. It’s becoming more prevalent,” Brindisi said. “And it’s time that the state stepped up and do the right thing, because our volunteers are there for us in our most needed time, and we need to be there for them in a time of uncertainty.”