Is The Modesto Bee suggesting firefighters should die faster?

May 21, 2013 

In response to "Public safety benefit increase is not wise public policy"(May 17, Editorial): Over the course of a career, firefighters are relentlessly exposed to a hellish mix of toxins. These exposures put firefighters at a substantially greater risk of getting cancer — a reality documented in more than 80 peer-reviewed medical studies.

Personally, I don't need the studies. In my three decades in the fire service, I've seen many succumb to job-caused cancer, including my best friend. Often, they leave behind wives and young children who not only lose a cherished loved one but also the family breadwinner.

This sacrifice, every bit as noble as that of one who dies in a fiery instant, makes it hard not to take The Bee's attack on Speaker John Pérez's survivor benefits legislation personally.

Assembly Bill 1373 narrowly modifies a 100-year-old "death clock" that cuts off survivor benefits after 240 weeks. Sadly, a lot of active firefighters who are diagnosed with job-caused illnesses don't get to test that limit — they die before it hits. But in the relatively few cases where modern medicine extends life, this outdated limit imposes a heartbreaking penalty on the survivors.

As refined this year, AB 1373 only applies to firefighters and police officers diagnosed while serving actively (retirees don't qualify). Only direct dependents, such as widows and minor children, can get it. It only applies narrowly to cancer, tuberculosis and blood-borne illness.

The endless wailing from local governments that AB 1373 risks fiscal chaos is ludicrous. The number of cases where it would apply are rare, and the average payout is well below the figures cited in the editorial. And, frankly, it's getting hard to take the doomsayers seriously. Last session, local governments spent nearly $100 million on lobbyists at the Capitol — more than unions, big oil and big energy put together. And yet, a little peace of mind for widows and orphans is somehow the backbreaker?

The implication that this benefit is just another cushy perk for public safety survivors is, in my view, contemptible. There aren't any "1-percenters" among these spouses and minor children — just brokenhearted families who wish they had some other reality than the death of their loved one.

The Assembly vote to approve AB 1373 was overwhelming and bipartisan. It included everything from "fiscal wonks" to "big spenders" and had more than its share of people who don't much care for any unions, ours included.

They understood that it's not about unions or firefighters or police officers. It's about families who shouldn't be punished because their loved one didn't die fast enough.

Paulson is president of the California Professional Firefighters.

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