Deputy Chief Tim Satterfield of Dawson County Emergency Services Deputy Chief Operations was diagnosed in October with pancreatic cancer. Satterfield, who has spent 40 years as a firefighter, is supporting House Bill 146, which would provide the state’s roughly 35,000 firefighters with certain insurance policies for treatment of types of cancer incurred through their fire service. A National Institute for Occupational Safety Health study of more than 30,000 firefighters across the country found higher rates of certain types of cancer than in the general U.S. population. (John Amis)

Georgia firefighters find comfort in insurance proposal

When a building becomes engulfed in flames and most people’s first instinct is to run away, Brian Scudder is running toward the fray to fight the fire.

Twelve years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and spent 18 months going through chemotherapy to fight cancer. He’s now in remission.

This year, he’s at the state Capitol fighting for legislation that would make firefighters eligible for special insurance policies to pay for cancer treatments incurred in the line of duty.

“When you’re told that you have cancer, you basically feel like you’ve been handed a death sentence,” said Scudder, who began his firefighting career 18 years ago in Gilmer County.

House Bill 146, sponsored by state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, would provide the roughly 35,000 firefighters in Georgia with certain insurance policies through their local fire departments as well as long-term disability, and it would trigger a lump-sum payout of $25,000 upon diagnosis.

But the bill, which passed out of the House Insurance Committee on Wednesday, was met with apprehension from lawmakers who viewed it as an unfunded mandate that would be financially burdensome on smaller cities and counties in Georgia with fewer resources.

But House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has been a vocal supporter of the bill, giving it a strong chance of passing through the House.

Under the legislation, firefighters would be eligible for the policy after 12 months of serving and would even be able to carry it — with added premiums — after retiring.

In May, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed House Bill 216, which would have granted workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters diagnosed with fire service-related cancers. A concern was that city and county governments would have been responsible for paying the costs.

“I get it,” said Tom Satterfield, the deputy chief of operators in Dawson County emergency services. “Telling a rural community that they’ve got to pay $25,000 when a firefighter gets cancer when their budget might not be $25,000 for the whole year is tough. They’re trying to do raffles and bake sales to raise money just to buy gear and fuel for the trucks.”

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of firefighters in Georgia are volunteers for local fire departments that cannot afford to employ professional staff.

The veto, Satterfield said, brought firefighters to the table with insurance carriers and local government associations to craft a new bill, which is modeled after similar legislation in Arizona and in line with 38 other states’ firefighter insurance policies.

“If we have a firefighter in Georgia that has been diagnosed with one of these types of cancer, we’re there for them, and we want to make sure if they can get healed and get back on the job …” Gravley said. “But even in more serious scenarios, (it’s important) that they know they have the type of coverage and the resources available.”

Gravley has suggested a statewide pool for the insurance policy that would diffuse costs for smaller Georgia cities and counties. Tom Gehl, the director of government relations for the Georgia Municipal Association, spoke before the committee in a public hearing Monday and again Wednesday affirming his support for the bill.

Even though firefighters wear protective gear and respirators to help with breathing, contaminants can still seep in through their skin, Satterfield said.

According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety Health study of more than 30,000 firefighters across the country, firefighters showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population. The study, which was published in 2016 and included both nonwhite and female firefighters in a range of ages, found the most common kinds of cancers among firefighters were digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers.

The types of diseases eligible for coverage under Gravley’s bill are bladder, blood, brain, breast, esophageal, intestinal, kidney, lymphatic, lung, prostate, rectum, respiratory tract, skin, testicular and thyroid cancer; leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; as well as cervical cancer, which was added to the list before passing out of committee.

In October, 40 years into his firefighting career, Satterfield was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which his doctors said was a result of the smoke he encountered in his job. He has undergone two months of chemotherapy and has six more months of treatment still ahead.

“Nobody thinks about getting cancer,” he said. “And then it hit me.”

Outside the Capitol, firefighters are doing their part to change the culture at the stations.

Justin Suggs, a deputy battalion chief for the Forsyth County Fire Department, said he gets regular examinations to test his health and check for cancer. A sign posted on the door for the living quarters reads “No Fire Gear Beyond This Point” — a testament to the education they now have that smoke particles from the gear can spread and contaminate other firefighters. Chiefs regularly remind firefighters to wash their gear using industry standard soap and to jump into the shower immediately upon return, a change from the “rub some dirt on it” philosophy Satterfield experienced when he first started.

“After a fire, you’re worn out, and now you’re going to have to take your gear back and clean it up,” he said, acknowledging the resistance to new standards.

While he wouldn’t be able to benefit from the bill — which, if passed, would go into effect Jan. 1, 2018 — Satterfield feels it’s his duty to fight for it.

“I’m near the end of my career,” he said. “But I’d hate to see a young firefighter come down with something that ends his or her career.”