Nearly 800 affiliate leaders from across the United States convened for the 2023 Alfred K. Whitehead IAFF Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., a short distance away from the Capitol. The annual conference champions issues most critical to the nation’s professional fire fighters and allows union leaders to hear from elected officials, including President Joseph R. Biden.
“We are not red. We are not blue. We are fire fighters through and through,” said General President Edward Kelly. “We are here this week to lobby our congressional leaders on issues that keep us safe, give us a voice, and provide a dignified retirement. When it comes to political parties, we do not care if you are Republican or Democrat as long as you support our issues.”
Echoing the legislative conference theme: Demanding Excellence, Kelly continued, “Whether it is funding the creation of our next-generation, PFAS-free bunker gear or whether its other cancer protections, we demand excellence from those who represent us in Congress.”
There are five pieces of legislation the IAFF is encouraging affiliate leaders discuss with their elected officials during this week’s Capitol Hill visits: the Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act, Protecting Firefighters and Advancing PFAS Alternatives Act, Healthcare for Heroes Act, Public Safety Free Speech Act, and Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2023.
The Honoring Our Fallen Heros Act would classify occupational cancer deaths as line-of-duty deaths, making surviving family members eligible to receive Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB).
U.S. Representative Nikki Budzinski (D-IL), a former IAFF Political Action Department lobbyist spoke about her support of the bill. “It was an honor to work for you at IAFF Headquarters. Now it is my privilege to support the Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act,” she said. “You and your families deserve protection.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-IL), who lost her husband, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell to cancer in 2019, understands the critical need to address cancer in the fire service. That is why she is not only supporting the Heroes Act, but also the Protecting Firefighters and Advancing PFAS Alternatives Act.
The bill seeks to provide a funding source ($25 million in grant dollars) to support research to create PFAS-free turnout gear and PPE. Fire fighter involvement in the process has been written into the bill as a requirement.
“We turn to you in times of our greatest need. We expect you to risk your lives every day to help us,” Dingell said. “The least we can do is to support legislation that will prevent exposure to PFAS and keep you safe. Your safety should be non-negotiable.”
The issue that perhaps has earned the most bipartisan support, even from those such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who have not supported the IAFF’s issues in the past, is the Public Safety Free Speech Act.
It would ensure first responders cannot be penalized for exercising their right to free speech about job-related concerns like staffing levels, inadequate safety equipment, wages, working conditions, or unreasonable administrative rules.
Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY) cited concerns in his district about being able to speak freely about COVID-19 vaccine mandates. “Public safety personnel should be able to speak their minds about the mandates without fear of retaliation,” D’Esposito said. “In fact, it should have been a mandatory subject of collective bargaining before implementation.”
Collective bargaining is not a right that all IAFF members have. That is why there is another push to pass the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act. If passed, it would establish collective bargaining for all public sector union employees.
Acknowledging that the IAFF has been working on this issue for decades, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who spoke at the Legislative Conference, said, “It’s past time for Congress to guarantee that all public sector unions have the right to collectively bargain. All of you deserve a voice and a seat at the table.”
The final IAFF legislative priority is the Healthcare for Heroes Act. It would provide fire fighters who retire before becoming Medicare eligible with a tax credit to offset the costs of obtaining temporary retiree health insurance.
While there is no active legislation regarding behavioral health, it remains an issue of critical importance. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra spoke about the new National Suicide & Crisis Hotline: 988.
“We know that you experience post-traumatic stress more than the average population. And we know that can lead to suicide,” said Becerra. “We set up the 988 number for those who are at the end of their rope and can’t wait for an appointment to get the help and support they need. No one is going to be put on hold. The help is there 24/7.”
And U.S. Fire Administrator (USFA) Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell spoke about what the U.S. Fire Administration is doing to keep fire fighters safe on the job.
Top USFA priorities include training all fire fighters to work within the wildland urban interface (WUI), addressing the fire fighter shortage with a fire service apprenticeship program, developing a comprehensive fire fighter cancer strategy, providing more resources for behavioral health, and creating safer communities by implementing and enforcing better safety codes and standards.
Advocacy will continue the second day of the conference with a rally located in Union Square calling for the removal of PFAS in turnout gear. Fire fighters will also have an opportunity on the second and third days to meet with their congressional leaders and discuss the issues.