ORLANDO, Fla. – After four years of legislative inaction, a bill that would grant Florida firefighters cancer coverage is being fast-tracked to clear the Legislature this year.
The bill, which would make firefighters eligible to receive disability or death benefits if they're diagnosed with certain types of cancer, cleared a major hurdle Thursday when the House State Affairs Committee unanimously approved to advance the measure.
During Sunday's episode of "The Weekly on ClickOrlando.com," anchor Justin Warmoth interviewed two former Central Florida firefighters who were diagnosed with cancer. Both Jazz Zombo, who was a firefighter with Seminole County Professional Firefighters 3254, and Jay Post, a former lieutenant with Brevard County Fire/Rescue, have been key advocates for the bill during Florida's legislative session.
"The first week of session we brought up 500 sets of boots, and put them on the steps of the courtyard," Zombo said. "They had names and pictures of firefighters who have passed away of cancer."
The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support, but stalled in the House up until late last week. Zombo feared it wouldn't pass this year and put the blame on House Speaker Jose Oliva, who was blocking the measure from moving forward.
"I saw the politics behind it in Tallahassee and why it wasn't going through," Zombo said. "It was disheartening."
Oliva felt the issue was best dealt with at the local level, but in a stunning reversal he allowed the bill to move forward. He issued a statement regarding his decision:
"The debate this year, as in past years, was never against firefighters nor was it political. It was the legislature that supported the funding to establish the proper need to begin with. Unfortunately, the debate became about whether we support our firefighters -- of course we do. And it became about whether it was political -- of course it wasn't. Still, the environment has become too toxic to debate the true original disagreement. As such, we will move the legislation forward, more so as the differences are not so great as to invite the assumptions now being spread."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that firefighters have 15% greater risk of developing cancer than the average person. More than 40 other states have passed similar legislation, according to Rocco Salvatori, vice president of Florida Professional Firefighters.
"It's not just a Florida problem," Salvatori said. "President Trump signed a bill into law to create a firefighter cancer registry to figure out why firefighters are being diagnosed more often."
Zombo, along with several other firefighters, delivered emotional testimony during Thursday's hearing. She said if the bill passes and is signed into law, it will give firefighters diagnosed with cancer and their families peace of mind when fighting the disease.
"When I was diagnosed, I, of course, was scared I was going to die, but my job was the first thing that came to my mind," Zombo said. "My parents had to cash out their retirement to pay for my treatments because it wasn't covered."
The bill is now on its way to the House floor, where it's expected to pass overwhelmingly.