Learn about Your Health Benefits

Dear Nozzlehead: I’d like to thank Battalion Chief Bryan Frieders for his article, “Chief, I Have Cancer” in FireRescue’s December 2010 Safety column.

As a cancer survivor myself, I can attest to the fact that your bosses’ and fellow firefighters’ reactions to your cancer diagnosis can have a significant impact on your psyche. The strong support of the firehouse family is imperative as you fight for your life, and my experience shows the best and worst that can happen.

The day after my diagnosis, my wife went to the firehouse to tell them what had happened. The fire chief told my wife that she had to request a leave of absence that could only last up to 6 months or I would lose my job, and that my lockers needed to be cleaned out of all personal items–that day. He also advised her that there was no short-term disability program so there would be no income until the long-term disability kicked in 6 months later.

After that, she walked into the bay where the officer on duty pulled her aside and assured her that the firefighters would do everything they could to help. The officer kept all my personal items in my lockers and even organized the firefighters to shave their heads in support before coming to the hospital to ceremonially shave my head.

The firefighters kept in touch with me weekly throughout my 6-month treatment and recuperation, and helped put together a fundraiser to offset our costs. The fire chief never called me during the same 6-month period.

The moral of the story, as Chief Frieders states, is to be prepared for the news that someone you know and care for has cancer, and be ready to help them at a moment’s notice–not only for the emotional support, but also for what needs to happen for their economic support. If your department is paid, then be sure that you have a short-term disability program established and that the application process is well known. For both paid and volunteer organizations, be sure that the leave of absence program is well stated in the department’s policies, so there are no ambiguities to sort through during the emotional period right after a diagnosis. In addition, assisting with the firefighter’s daily needs is indispensable to the spouse and family–help with getting groceries, mowing the lawn, taking the kids to Little League practice, etc.

–Survivor in the Rockies

Dear Survivor,
First of all, I wish you all the best as you continue to SURVIVE cancer. Second of all, if you haven’t already, make contact with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (www.firefightercancersupport.org) ASAP. The FCSN provides timely assistance to all fire service members (career and volunteer) and their families in the event of cancer diagnosis. It maintains a roster of mentors who have personal experience with many types of cancers and who will personally guide you through the process of dealing with your specific illness.

The FCSN also provides awareness to fire service members and their families about the importance of cancer prevention and screening by coordinating educational opportunities with various health programs. Also, the FCSN works in collaboration with the American Cancer Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and has been formally supported by the IAFC and the IAFF. Firefighters taking care of firefighters and their families. Good stuff!

As far as your chief goes, when a chief chooses to blow off a life-threatening issue like this, that’s clearly a “chief retirement indicator.” When a chief doesn’t care about an issue this important, what else will they choose to not give a damn about? Get out the gold watch, order some cold cuts, cover the meeting room table with a cloth and then say few nice words, including “goodbye,” and do it quickly.

When it comes to firefighter safety and survival, protection is the way we reduce risk–protection through training, apparatus, bunker gear, leadership and a “survival attitude.”

Similarly, there are things we can do to help protect ourselves against cancer. We know that not smoking, eating healthy, exercising, getting regular screenings and understanding your genetic background can go a long way in minimizing risks. Other keys include enforcing mandatory mask rules, making sure that we don’t inhale ANY smoke and cleaning our gear after fires. If/when we get soot anywhere on us, we need to clean it off immediately to avoid the absorption of carcinogens via our pores.

Another aspect of protection: Making sure that you have health coverage and “just in case” assistance for firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer or suffered an injury. This is just like preplanning. We can choose to not plan ahead and instead assume that everything will be fine, or we can plan ahead in case something does go wrong–and when does something NOT go wrong? It’s the difference between a department that takes planning and training seriously, and the one that doesn’t. Ever see the latter-type department on a run? Check YouTube. It’s scary.

The protection issue is key for all firefighters in North America, particularly volunteer, call or part-time firefighters who don’t always get the same benefits as their career colleagues. In most cases with career departments, the firefighters (and their representatives) are focused on making sure that they have decent benefits in the event of illness, injury or death. However, after hearing your story, it probably wouldn’t hurt for career firefighters to also check their coverage as well.

You probably assume that if something happened to you, you WOULD be taken care of from a benefits standpoint. You probably assume that if you lost your life, your local department would have “some kind of a plan” (in addition to the state and federal PSOB LODD death benefits) to pick up where you left off. But you should assume nothing. Make sure you KNOW these things.

With this in mind, take a few minutes to direct these questions to your department president, chief, union local, board, commissioners or administrative-type people:

  • What coverage do you have in the event that you get cancer, are slightly injured, seriously injured, disabled or killed in the line of duty?
  • What is their definition of “line of duty”?
  • What are the applicable state laws?
  • Does your state have cancer presumption laws for firefighters?
  • Are there age requirements?
  • Who is covered? Who isn’t?
  • What happens if you get sick (either on or off duty) and how long can you take sick leave?
  • How long are you covered (income, job security, benefits, etc.) if you’re off for a long period of time?
  • Is there any temporary or permanent disability plan?
  • Who pays your medical bills?
  • Are there any out-of-pocket expenses?
  • How will your family be supported from a cash flow/income standpoint if you can’t go to your regular job?

Now is a good time to get the answers. After all, it can be devastating to find out that something you expected to be there is simply not there. And sure, it’s sad when your house floods or your car gets damaged, but it’s not as devastating as this. Devastating is when a firefighter is sick or hurt, and the family (which is already traumatized) finds out that the “cupboard is bare and the chief don’t care.” Fortunately, though, most firefighters do care and are willing to do whatever it takes to help.

This column is dedicated to all firefighters and their families who have had to deal with cancer, with special memories of Louie S., Lee S. and James S.

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