It may not be well known that Rep. Jason Saine (R) of Lincoln County was once a firefighter. Between 2004 and 2011, he served as a volunteer firefighter for the East Lincoln Fire Department. He’s still on the roster and said that one day, he may go back to it. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science. His training as a firefighter gives him the tools he needs to put out fires in congress.
“While I was campaigning in early 2004, the East Lincoln Fire Department was a precedent location,” he said. “I got talking to some of the guys and later on that year, talked more to them. They asked me to help them with some of their press releases, they didn’t have any background in that.”
Then, the other firefighters got Saine suited up during a live burn and he thought it was “pretty cool to do.” Before he knew it, he was training with them.
“I directed traffic at accident scenes more than anything, but I’ve been in fires and ran a lot of medical calls with them,” he said.
It’s well known that fighting fires is a dangerous occupation. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, but for today’s firefighter, the flames aren’t as deadly as the smoke. Cancer has become the silent killer of firefighters.
Cancer caused 66% of the career firefighter line-of-duty deaths from 2002 to 2019, according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters. Heart disease caused 18% of career firefighter line of duty deaths for the same period. Cancer caused 70% of the line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters in 2016. Firefighters have a nine percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population, according to research by the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.
This is not the first time Saine and other legislators have tried to get legislation through the senate which would offer assistant firefighters diagnosed with cancer, but this time, the North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously passed H.B. 520. This bill is intended to change North Carolina's workers' compensation laws, which currently do not recognize nine cancers that firefighters are susceptible to because of the nature of their jobs. These nine cancers include esophageal, intestinal, rectal, testicular, brain, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, Mesothelioma, oral cavity.
“Presumptive cancer has been a real issue for firefighters across the country,” Saine said. “Firefighters are in a high-risk environment on a daily basis for their jobs and they do end up developing certain types of cancer at a higher rate.”
Legislators have been exploring ways to help firefighters when they do have to go through treatment and to provide for their families, according to Saine.
“Really this is through no fault of their own, they’re simply doing their job to protect us,” he said. “Recent developments in furniture and clothing which are basically fuel for fire, put off a lot of toxic gases which are scary enough as it is, but a lot of the off gases show signs of causing cancers.”
Previous bills have been hung up in the senate, according to Saine.
“Municipalities believe that they may be on the hook to pay for these things,” he said. “But the reality is it would only have a small impact. Prior to this there hasn’t been a good advocate on the senate side who has taken it up, but we’ve now got Sen. Jim Perry who has paid attention over the years and watched legislation. He’s fairly new to the senate, but he’s decided to work with us on it.”
Saine is cautiously optimistic that the bill may make its way through the senate.
“As exciting as it may sound to be a firefighter, it’s serious work and there’s serious health consequences for it,” he said. “We owe it to those folks who are willing to provide that service. We pay them, as we should, but this support is something that we should be doing.”
Another bill that Saine is co-sponsoring recently cleared the house as well. The chamber voted 98-17 in favor of H.B. 307 that would make daylight savings time year-round. This is another bill that cleared the house in 2019 but wasn't taken up by the North Carolina senate. Representatives John Szoka, R-Cumberland; Jon Hardister, R-Guilford; and David Willis, R-Union, are co-sponsors.
“Probably six or seven years ago, I was at a southeastern legislative conference and it must have been right around the time change in the fall or spring,” he said. “We were talking about regional issues and someone said that they wished we could be like Arizona, so we didn’t have that shift in time. That sparked a conversation.”
North Carolina, according to Saine, is one of the last states to pass a resolution on it.
“I’ve found this to be one of the most popular bills I’ve ever filed,” he said. “I got one message from a Democrat who said that he didn’t like much of what Republicans did, but he liked this one and hoped it’d be successful. It’s a popular piece of legislation – people hate the groggy feeling they get during the time change. I haven’t had anyone write me an