Cancer bill hits Westerlo FD

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

In a fire that decimated a Guilderland home last summer, firefighters had to tear through the roof to allow smoke to escape and then spray water on remaining hot spots. A new law requires fire departments to fund insurance plans for firefighters afflicted with certain cancers if they have served as interior firefighters.

WESTERLO — At September’s town board meeting, Westerlo Fire Chief Kevin Flensted noted that the fire district would be adding $10,400 to its expenses, or a 4.7-percent increase to the approximately $230,000 allocated to the fire district in Westerlo’s 2018 budget.

Flensted said the reason for this is the New York State Volunteer Firefighter Gap Coverage Cancer Disabilities Benefits Act, which was enacted almost a year ago and will take effect in 2019. The law requires that any agency liable for benefits under the volunteer firefighters’ benefit law provide an insurance program for firefighters suffering from various cancers due to on-the-job exposure. The coverage will remain for five years after the department no longer has any eligible firefighters.

The bill drew the ire of fire companies when it was learned that the cost of the insurance would be borne by the companies. In June, for example, Rensselaerville town supervisor and Medusa Fire Chief Steve Pfleging spoke out against the bill at a town meeting, and later described it as an unfunded mandate.

Flensted told The Enterprise this week that the costs in 2019 may be alleviated in Westerlo due to $11,000 that had been set aside during last year’s budget planning. The fire company had set aside the funds for engineering costs associated with purchasing a new building, he said, but, after being unable to purchase one for 2018, he said that this money was put into its account by the town, as the fire company had submitted its own separate budget months earlier, and remained in the town budget. At last week’s town board meeting, one resident suggested using this money to cover this year’s increased cost for the fire department.

Coverage must be available to active volunteer firefighters or firefighters active in the last five years who have served as interior firefighters, meaning they enter burning buildings, for at least five years. Eligible firefighters also have to have been cancer-free before they started volunteering.

Flensted said about half of his fire company are interior firefighters but he does not believe it will help many of his volunteers because of the stringent requirements to receive benefits. Firefighters must have received a physical to prove they did not have cancer before volunteering, and each has to have proof of taking a mask-fitting test for five years to show that he or she served as an interior firefighter.

Under the current law, a totally disabled firefighter may receive up to $600 a month in disability benefits for 10 types of cancer — lung, prostate, breast, lymphatic, hematological, digestive, urinary, neurological, reproductive system, or melanoma. Firefighters facing serious types of cancer would be eligible for a lump-sum payment of $25,000 from a pool of $50,000 available for a second diagnosis.

A monthly payment of $1,500 a month for three years would be available to a disabled firefighter. The volunteer’s family would be eligible for $50,000 in an accidental-death benefit. The benefits would be funded by property taxes paid to the fire district, and would be tax-exempt for the individuals receiving them.

Other business

In addition, the board:

— Voted in favor of holding a public hearing on an updated peddler’s ordinance on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., with the board’s workshop meeting following; and

— Discussed changes to the employee handbook, specifically with concerns about updating it to distinguish town officials from part-time employees.

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