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Long Island volunteer firefighters want expanded medical coverage

From left, state Sens. Carl Marcellino and Jack

From left, state Sens. Carl Marcellino and Jack Martins, FASNY president Robert McConville and Tom McDonough, a Port Washington volunteer firefighter who had thyroid cancer, speak during an outreach session at the Albertson Fire Department on Saturday, March 19, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Tom McDonough learned in 2013 that his three decades rushing into fires may have endangered his life in a way he never expected.

The Port Washington volunteer firefighter said he found out in a phone call from his doctor that he had thyroid cancer. He would have the gland removed and learned he would spend the rest of his life paying $600 to $700 a year out of pocket for medicine.

McDonough and other Long Island leaders with the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, or FASNY, convened at the Albertson firehouse Saturday to outline their legislative priorities for 2016.

Chief among them: Expanding medical and wage replacement coverage for volunteer firefighters who may have developed cancer from smoke and soot, putting their benefits on par with those of career firefighters.

“It’s not there for me, and that’s fine,” McDonough said of the insurance. “But I have three kids in the fire service.”

FASNY is lobbying Albany lawmakers to pass a bill, first introduced in 2011, that would allow firefighters with several forms of cancer to access the insurance program paid into by fire departments in the state, the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefits Law.

“Cancer in the volunteer fire service is FASNY’s No. 1 priority,” said Robert McConville, a Selden fire commissioner and president of the association representing the state’s 92,000 volunteer firefighters.

State senators have included the insurance expansion in their 2016 state budget proposal, association leaders said, and firefighters must press Assembly members this year to include it in the chambers’ negotiated budget.

Several dozen representatives of Long Island departments attended Saturday’s conference.

Drawing on research showing firefighters to be prone to certain cancers, the law would have insurance officials presume volunteers with those diseases were sickened in the line of duty.

Carcinogens lurk in the substances firefighters breathe and touch at burning structures, said McDonough, 56, vice chairman of the association’s legislative committee. Some of the chemicals are propelled into the air by burning furniture or plastic.

“All the studies have shown that the smoke is a carcinogen, the soot is a carcinogen,” said McDonough, a 27-year member of the Port Washington department who joined the Lakeland department in Ronkonkoma when he was 16. “It’s almost like secondhand smoke.”

FASNY leaders also said they would push Albany lawmakers to raise the state income tax benefit for volunteer firefighters from $200 to $300 a year, which they said helps volunteers cover incidental costs like gasoline, dry cleaning for uniforms, and missed hours at work.

McConville said he wanted to continue efforts to promote health and nutrition information among firefighters to prevent cancer and heart attacks. Keeping equipment clean, for instance, can reduce contact with carcinogens that may cling long after a fire, he said.

“The healthier they are, the better firefighters they’ll be,” he said. “And the longer they’ll be firefighters.”

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