FEDERAL FIRE FIGHTER PRESUMPTIVE DISABILITY
• Our nation’s federal fire fighters have some of the most hazardous and sensitive jobs in the country. While protecting our national interests on military installations, VA hospitals and other federal facilities, they are routinely exposed to stress, smoke, heat, toxic substances and infectious diseases, putting them at an increased risk to develop cancer, heart disease, infectious diseases, and lung and respiratory diseases. Numerous studies provide evidence of the link between fire fighting and these and other health problems.
• Fire fighters who are forced to separate from service due to a disability sustained in the line of duty receive enhanced retirement benefits over those who are injured off the job.
• Occupational illnesses should be considered job-related disabilities, but unlike most states, the federal government does not presume that illnesses associated with fire fighting were contracted in the line of duty.
• To qualify for disability retirement, a federal fire fighter who suffers from an occupational illness must specify the precise exposure that caused his or her illness. This burden of proof is extraordinarily difficult for fire fighters to meet because they respond to a wide variety of emergency calls, constantly working in different environments under different conditions.
• The Federal Firefighters Fairness Act creates a rebuttable presumption that federal fire fighters who become disabled by heart and lung disease, certain cancers and certain infectious diseases contracted the illness on the job.
• Because the presumption is rebuttable, illnesses would not be considered job-related if the employing agency can demonstrate that the illness likely has another cause. For example, a fire fighter who smokes would not be able to receive line-of-duty disability for lung cancer. But the burden of proof would be on the employer, rather than the injured employee or his or her family.
• The Congressional Budget Office has found the cost of implementing the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act to be quite low: approximately $26 million over ten years.
• It is fundamentally unfair that fire fighters employed by the federal government are not eligible for disability retirement for the same occupational diseases as their municipal counterparts. This disparity is especially glaring in instances where federal fire fighters work along side municipal fire fighters during mutual aid responses and are exposed to the same hazardous conditions, such as the responses to Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires.
• If the federal government wants to be able to recruit and retain qualified fire fighters, it must be able to offer a benefits package that is competitive with the municipal sector, including having occupational illness covered by worker's compensation.
• Congress has provided presumptive disability benefits to other groups of individuals, such as military veterans, World Trade Center responders and public safety officers who die in the line of duty. For example, service-connected disability benefits are provided to Vietnam veterans who contract certain diseases which are presumed to be caused by herbicide exposure.