Of the Fires in the West, of Brave Men and Women, and of Fairness for Thousands (UPDATE)
(Update at end)
Here is one instance where I totally do not mind that a story I have been working on has been overtaken by events.
First the “events”:
The Denver Post has just reported that President Barack Obama has directed federal officials to offer seasonal firefighters the option of purchasing federal health insurance coverage.
The Denver Post:
On a recent trip to Colorado Springs, the president was apparently moved by the men and women firefighters he met, senior administration officials said in an interview.
When he returned to Washington, he told his cabinet that he wanted to “find a solution” for the hundreds of workers toiling in dangerous conditions without the option to buy in to federal insurance.
Under a directive that will be made in the “near future” from the Office of Personnel Management, this group will get that option by the end of this month, White House officials said.
Now the “story”:
The tragic crash of the N.C. Air National Guard C-130 that was fighting the fires in the Black Hills of South Dakota took the lives of four brave airmen and injured two.
Sgt. Josh Marlowe was injured and hospitalized in Rapid City. The condition of the second survivor, as yet unidentified, is unknown, but he is being treated at the Jaycee Burn Center of the North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill.
Because of their military status, both airmen have received and will continue to receive the best medical care in the world — as they should, along with their familes — long after they finish their firefighting duties.
It is a different story for thousands of other firefighters who risk their lives battling the same fires on the ground, “navigating treacherous terrain, dense walls of smoke and tall curtains of flame,” because thousands of our nation’s seasonal firefighters have no health insurance for themselves or their families, according to the Austin American-Statesman, and who, because they are not full-time U.S. Forest Service employees, do not have the option of purchasing federal health insurance. “Firefighters do get workers’ compensation if they are hurt on the job, but that doesn’t cover them in the offseason.”
While in another two years these seasonal firefighters will have the opportunity to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, they do not have that “luxury” now and they want to buy into a federal government health plan.
One of the firefighters received a $70,000 hospital bill after his son was born prematurely, says the Statesman. This angered many firefighters.
“You pray you don’t get sick,” said firefighter John Lauer, a member of the Tatanka Hotshots crew based in Custer, S.D., who recently worked the massive High Park Fire in northern Colorado and started an online petition that has already gathered more than 125,000 signatures .
Polly Tarpley, a resident of Poulsbo, Wash. who signed the petition said, according to the Statesman: “I’m insulted for them, and I’m insulted for our country. That should be a pretty obvious question. These men and women work their tails off in extremely dangerous conditions.”
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates firefighting efforts nationwide, says 15,000 wildland firefighters are on the federal payroll this year. Of that number, some 8,000 are classified as temporary seasonal employees, who work on a season-to-season basis with no guarantee of a job the next year and no access to federal benefits.
Some seasonal firefighters say they put in a year’s worth of hours in six months.
Mark Davis, president of the Forest Service Council of the union, estimates it would cost the federal government $17.5 million a year to pay its share of premiums for seasonal firefighters working for the Forest Service, which employs about 70 percent of federal firefighters. The rest work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.
Finally back to today’s events:
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, had introduced legislation today that would provide health insurance for firefighters and their families.
Though the proposed legislation has some early bipartisan support, it has an uncertain path to victory since Congress only has another few weeks of true productivity before November.
“I’m elated the president has stepped in to bring access to health insurance for wildland firefighters,” DeGette said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him and the White House to implement this new policy.”
Other Democrat members of the Colorado delegation also welcomed the news.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, said it was “only right” that firefighters get health coverage.
“I’m happy the president acted so quickly following his visit to Colorado,” Polis said.
Colorado’s four Republicans were mostly silent.
Yesterday, the four airmen killed in the C-130 crash were memorialized at a service in Charlotte, N.C.
Lt. Col Paul Mikeal.
Maj. Joe McCormick.
Maj. Ryan David.
Senior Master Sgt. Robbie Cannon.
The name of the second injured airman is now known. It is Chief Master Sergeant Andy Huneycutt.
As families of the fallen filed in, a pianist played “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue spoke.
“These proud, proud airmen all knew – they really did know and understand, as did their families – the risk and reward. Time after time after time, they strapped themselves in that seat for their next mission to protect people they didn’t know or would never know in places far from our homes…”
She said the plane they flew is named the Hercules, appropriately named after the adventuresome mythological character known for his strength.
Capt. Jeff Kidd, one of the unit’s chaplains, told the crowd what one of the family members said of their airman this week. “You earned your wings to fly in the sky and now you earned your wings to soar among the heavens.”