Conference highlights bipartisan efforts, crucial legislation, and key wins

Governors, Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and even a surprise visit from Vice President Kamala Harris greeted IAFF leaders at the 2024 Alfred K. Whitehead Legislative Conference.

March 5 • 2024

More than 750 union members are in Washington this week for the annual event and to lobby Congress on issues impacting the fire service, public safety, and the well-being of IAFF members.

General President Edward Kelly opened the conference with an overview of IAFF wins achieved collaboratively at the local, state, and International levels.

We need to be here. This IAFF needs to be fighting and advocating to improve the lives of our members, our families, and our communities.

Edward Kelly
IAFF General President

The gridlock on Capitol Hill has stalled important legislation; Congress has introduced 12,000 bills, and only 50 have passed. It is all the more reason for IAFF members to be active in meeting with their elected officials, according to Kelly.

“What we lobby are matters of life and death,” he said.

The IAFF’s priority issues for this legislative session include advancing:

  • The Fire Grants and Safety Act, which would reauthorize the AFG and SAFER grant programs to ensure fire stations are staffed and that 911 calls are answered;
  • The Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act to recognize first responders’ occupational cancer deaths as line-of-duty deaths, thus providing death benefits to their survivors;
  • The PFAS Alternatives Act, authorizing $25 million to drive the development of next-generation, toxic-free bunker gear;
  • The Public Safety Free Speech Act to ensure fire fighters and other first responders keep their rights to speak publicly about job-related issues,
  • and the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act to give fire fighters and emergency medical workers the right to work with their employers to address working conditions.

“When you meet with your members of Congress this week, you need to look them in the eye. You need to tell them AFG and SAFER must be reauthorized because your life could depend on it,” Kelly said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) has helped secure millions of dollars in AFG and SAFER grants for his constituents.

We have a lot to fight for, starting with the SAFER Act in the House of Representatives. We’re going to get that done.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD)

“It passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, and we don’t want it to get caught up in the paralysis and the stranglehold and the ideological crosscurrents of the House,” Raskin said.

U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell added that the bill included the reauthorization of the USFA.

“If the USFA is minimized, your voice in the federal government is minimized,” she said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) signed on to sponsor the Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act after Saint Paul, MN, Local 21 member Mike Paidar lost his battle with occupational cancers.

“My last ask of you as you look at all the bills, those two or three bills you are lobbying on, is you make sure you tell the story about those people who got that cancer,” she said. “We have to get these bills passed.”

The PFAS Alternatives Act, introduced by Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, seeks to remove carcinogenic PFAS chemicals from fire fighter protective gear.

“Exposure to hazardous materials that can cause cancer must not be an expectation of the profession,” she said. “It’s a bipartisan issue. I’m going to work with Democrat and Republican colleagues, fire fighters, manufacturers, researchers, and others to enact this legislation.”

When Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su spoke at the conference, she talked about the many things that the Biden-Harris Administration was doing to keep its promises to fire fighters – including protecting them against cancer. Su highlighted the administration’s creation of a special workers’ compensation claims unit for fire fighter cancer.

Over the past two years, that unit has helped over 4,000 fire fighters get the treatment and the benefits they are entitled to. Promises made; promises kept.

Julie Su,
The U.S. Secretary of Labor

She also talked about another kept promise: the signing of the Federal Fire Fighters Fairness Act. This legislation ensures that when federal fire fighters get sick with heart-related illnesses or cancer on the job, their claims are more readily approved. Only 29 percent of claims were approved before the bill. Today, 93 percent of claims are approved.

The Social Security Fairness Act would fully repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and the Government Pension Offset (GPO). Both unfairly penalize thousands of retired first responders eligible for Social Security benefits every year.

Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a retired member of Miami Local 587, said he was a proud supporter of the repeal.

For too long, public servants have faced reduced or eliminated Social Security benefits due to this outdated policy. It is my hope that we can get this important policy over the finish line and finally repeal WEP and GPO to ensure our hard-working public servants are no longer penalized and denied the money they rightfully deserve.

Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez

Rep. Val Hoyle (D-OR) said all the IAFF’s priorities, including the Free Speech Act, are important to her.

“I have the booklet of the IAFF Legislative Conference Priorities for Congress right there on my coffee table for everybody to look at,” she said, “because if it’s your priority, it is my priority.”

Governors Andy Beshear (KY) and Wes Moore (MD) also highlighted the importance of being pro-union.

“Kentucky has now increased our union membership each of the last two years,” said Beshear. “It has been an honor to stand next to you and our other unions to fight for a better life for our families.”

Moore, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, said fire fighters and emergency medical workers define service.

“Our military and our unions have taught me really important lessons, and one of those important lessons is that we don’t do anything on our own,” Moore said. “Nobody succeeds by doing things on your own.”

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) was introduced by her husband, Gainesville, FL Local 2157 member Matthew Harrison. She encouraged attendees to share personal stories as they lobby for legislation that keeps them and their communities safer.

“There are more members of Congress who have no idea about the first responder community. They talk like they do. But they have no idea,” Cammack said. “You being here is your opportunity to talk about why those grants matter. This is your time to tell the story.”

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz talked about last summer’s wildfires.

“We can never fully repay the Maui fire fighters for their service and sacrifice, and the same is true of all of you,” the Democrat said. “But what we can do is fight to get you the resources, the healthcare, and the benefits that you deserve.”

Political analyst Dave Wasserman, senior editor and elections analyst with The Cook Political Report, spoke about political trends ahead of the 2024 election. His presentation and the entire general session are available on our IAFF YouTube channel here.