Seasonal Firefighters Officially Get Health Benefits

For the first time, more than 8,000 temporary wilderness firefighters -- the men and women who battle some of the nation's most devastating fires -- will be eligible to receive federal health insurance, the White House said Tuesday.

According to U.S. government personnel rules, seasonal employees -- a classification that includes firefighters who work only during fire season -- cannot buy the health insurance plan available to full-time federal employees. Tuesday's announcement makes an exception for temporary firefighters, who make up more than half of the firefighters on the federal payroll this year.

"Their heroism in battling the deadly fires that have impacted states across the country this summer inspires us all," President Obama said in a statement. "Each day, these Americans put themselves in grave danger to save the lives of people they never met, which is why I directed my administration to ensure that our nation's firefighters can count on the care and protection they need."

Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management and the Agriculture and Interior departments to open the insurance plans to firefighters, the Associated Press reported.

The announcement brings to a close a years-long discussion regarding the employment status of the crews that come to the rescue when the country is burning, firefighter advocates say. More attention has been brought to the issue in recent months amid record-breaking fires in the West and the ongoing national discussion on healthcare.

Most recently, a petition drive launched by members of a South Dakota firefighting crew garnered more than 125,000 signatures.

"For the first time, thousands of firefighters will bed down tonight exhausted but unburdened, knowing that the health of their families and their own will now be fairly accounted for," John Lauer, the petition's co-founder, said in a YouTube video.

Wildland firefighters, who must travel to and from fires, risk injuries from burns, falling trees, buzzsaw injuries and crashes, said Jeffrey Burgess, a doctor and toxicologist who provides medical support to the Phoenix Fire Department.

Further, the effects of smoke inhalation, such as carbon monoxide headaches and lung damage, can last for months after fire season is over, he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

From 2002 through 2011, 41 wildland firefighters were killed on the job, the National Fire Protection Association told The Times.

Copyright 2012 - Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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