By Tim Bradley
The North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association (NCSFA) has been in existence for over 135 years serving North Carolina Firefighters. We’re called the Tarheel State, but you’ll find Duke, State, Clemson, and even East Carolina University (ECU) fans here as well, in addition to a host of others. Traveling around North Carolina, you can’t help but appreciate the subtle differences in communities, people, and even community names. Alabama has its Scratch Ankle, but we’ve got our Nags Head and Bald Head, also a Clarks Neck and Scotland Neck, not to mention a Sandy Bottom. We’ve got a Bushy Mountain, and a Flat Branch Fire Department, as well as a Silver Lake and Silver Valley. I don’t think anyone else has a Duck or a Bat Cave, except maybe Batman, but we do here. North Carolina is special and a lot goes into keeping it special but in the end, it’s our people that make the difference. There are many differences in communities across the state, but many more similarities. Just like our three Regional Firefighter Associations, we have three phases of barbecue: Eastern-Western-Piedmont, yet it all comes from a hog. If you’re eating at a restaurant and order “Catch of the Day”, it could be anything from Catfish to Flounder. Regardless, someone worked hard to catch it, cook it, and serve it. Life is about people and North Carolina has some of the best, especially our firefighters. In North Carolina, we have over 48,463 active career and volunteer firefighters, with 1,308 fire departments serving communities from Corolla to Cullowhee, or the coast to the mountains.
Taking care of firefighters has and continues to be our most important job and our greatest challenge. Two issues that have challenged us in recent years, just as they have firefighters across the nation, are Mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress, depression, grieving, and suicide, and Firefighter Cancer.
Mental Health. The North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association recognizes our responsibilities in providing support and assistance to our state’s fire service personnel related to mental health. To the Association, our State and local communities, as well as the fire departments themselves, our personnel are our most valuable resource to be protected. For their families and their community, they need to come home safe and remain safe by eliminating life-altering stress caused by witnessing of and participation in traumatic events, as well as the culminating anxiety that comes from balancing a stressful career with other aspects of life. This means not only providing benefits but providing programs in areas such as mental health and assistance with individual cases of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).
Mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress, depression, family conflict, grieving, addictions, and suicide are all becoming more commonplace in our service. North Carolina previously had two programs dealing with these issues already in existence. The first was First Responder Assistance Program (FRAP), which offers resources and referrals to first responders for these issues. This is an initial contact program to provide information and resources for those seeking assistance. The second, broader program is the North Carolina First Responder Peer Support Program. This program is defined as assistance provided by a trained individual or group of trained firefighters, law enforcement officers, or EMS personnel who answer the call to their brothers and sisters in need, regardless of the need. These two programs provide initial and peer support in an excellent manner, but the missing component was the ability to cover professional counseling services an individual may need beyond the service of these programs.
Working with a grant provided by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC, the NCSFA and the North Carolina Firefighters Fund (NCFF) has developed a program of reimbursement of expenses for qualified counseling related to Mental Health and Post-Traumatic Stress issues.
The program will provide reimbursement of therapy or counseling by a qualified physician or licensed counselor. Since the grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield is a limited amount, funding will only be provided as long as funds designated for this purpose within the NCFF remain. The program will provide up to $2,500 in reimbursement per individual for insurance copays, insurance deductibles, or direct counseling services not covered by the individual’s or department’s insurance. Travel expenses may be reimbursed if the services obtained are out of State. The application must be submitted and signed by the Fire Chief or Chief Officer of the department, and services must be performed by a licensed therapeutic counselor or doctor specializing in stress disorders and must be related at least in part to the individual work as a firefighter listed on the fire department roster. Reimbursement approval is at the sole discretion of the NCFF. Information and application information can be found at www.ncsfa.com.
Firefighter Cancer. Firefighter Cancer has become an issue for firefighters across the country and internationally. Numerous programs for risk management of cancer are available, both from local, state, and national programs. In North Carolina alone we have the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance, which provides training and prevention programs. Numerous departments have initiated cancer prevention routines in their daily operational guidelines. Other programs such as those with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) are shared and available. While prevention holds the key to reducing cancer in the future, the problem still exists for those in the fire service who develop cancer, one of those being the financial issues involved with firefighter cancer. Cancer can become devastating not only on the physical well-being but on the financial side as well.
Over the last several years unsuccessful attempts have been made to pass a worker’s compensation-based presumptive cancer law in NC for firefighters. NC workers compensation law is written such that once the issue is determined to be a worker’s comp claim, all costs, medical and disability, are paid out of the worker’s compensation fund and not health insurance. This led to difficulty in getting the law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly because of cost concerns. In addition, even with presumptive cancer laws, coverage is not guaranteed.
A little over two years ago the NCSFA began working with the League of Municipalities to develop language for a firefighter cancer insurance policy that could be placed into law and provided to every firefighter in North Carolina. Prior to last year’s legislative session, this language was submitted to the combined legislative committee of the North Carolina Fire Service, including the NCSFA, North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of North Carolina, and all agreed it would be the focus of the 2021/2022 legislative session. In May of last year, the NCSFA held its annual legislative day, and firefighter cancer insurance was the priority presented to every legislative representative. With COVID masks designed with a purple ribbon design, and handouts describing the issue of firefighter cancer and the defined benefit of firefighter cancer insurance, close to 200 hundred firefighters made their case to legislators in person. This, combined with calls and lobbying efforts of fire service organizations, let the elected representatives know this was the critical issue facing our service. In the closing days of the session, the Firefighter Cancer Coverage legislation was passed, providing cancer coverage for every rostered firefighter in North Carolina with more than five-year continuous service. The program was funded for two years at a cost of $16 million.
The North Carolina Department of Insurance was tasked with finding the coverage for the policy and selected Volunteer Fireman’s Insurance Services, Inc. (VFIS) of North Carolina to provide the coverage. The policy provides the following benefits:
• $25,000 benefit per cancer with a maximum of $50,000 per individual
• $12,000 per diagnosis of cancer reimbursement for expenses
• Career Firefighters 75% of salary up to $5,000 per month for disability for 36 months
• Volunteer Firefighters $1,500 per month for disability for 36 months
• The policy pays in addition to any other policy except workers compensation
While this was a major success, our work is not done. The program was funded for two years and efforts will be necessary to make the funding permanent going into the future. For additional information on this policy go to: www.vfisnc.com or www.ncosfm.gov/risk-mgnt
South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo (SAFRE): This year’s dates for the SAFRE Conference are August 10th-13th, 2022. Online registration will be available in the next couple of weeks. Course selections have already been made and this year we will have some great classes. We have two great keynote speakers this year, one for Thursday during opening ceremonies and one for Friday, Dr. Denis Onieal, former Deputy US Fire Administrator and former Superintendent at the National Fire Academy will join us Friday for a presentation as well as teach some leadership classes, and Commander Rorke Denver, retired Navy Seal will provide us leadership thoughts based on his experience during the opening Thursday. Our vendor show, which is one of the largest covers over 150,000 square feet of space and will have free admission. Please mark your calendar for that week. We look forward to a great week of fellowship, education, and seeing what’s new and innovative in apparatus, technology, and equipment for the fire service and our first responders.
Video Series: The Board and staff of NCSFA have begun production of an informal series of informational videos concerning topics of current events in the fire service. Examples include legislation, relief fund, and other benefits or programs available to the fire service. As these are produced, they’ll be placed on our webpage and social media for viewing. Held to two to three minutes each, they will provide information to chiefs and firefighters on a host of topics. Production began January 14th, and hopefully, within a few months many of them will be available.
NCSFA History: The NCSFA has continued work on documenting our history. Mike Legeros, from Raleigh, has begun formulating historical information working with our Statistician and Historian, Dennis Pressley. Some of this was displayed at the Annual Conference last year. The Board plans to have a history book ready for this year’s conference, and also have plans to provide copies to all North Carolina Fire Departments. Since our beginning in 1887, the book will describe the development and growth of the Association and the North Carolina Fire Service as well. Complete with pictures and documents it will be inclusive of events that shaped our growth.
The NCSFA has a history of providing and fighting for firefighter benefits, resources, and providing an opportunity to work together for the improvement of our service, and ultimately the protection of our citizens. We partner with other Associations in North Carolina, as well as other State Associations to share ideas on benefits and programs. We work with national and international organizations to bring relevant programs here. Close to 70% of the National Volunteer Fire Council membership consists of North Carolina Firefighters. Proud to serve the fire service, our nine Board members are elected and represent the three regions of the State. For more information visit our website at ncsfa.com.
Tim Bradley has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology, an Associate Degree in Electronic Engineering Technology, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program. Tim has been in the fire service for 47 years. He served as Chief for seven years, Executive Director of the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission, and Senior Deputy Commissioner of Insurance in charge of the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM), among many other positions. He was awarded North Carolina’s Firefighter of the Year Award in 2003, and in 2007 he was awarded Firehouse Magazines Heroism Award for the rescue of a five-year-old boy from a house fire. He is the author of “The Fire Marshals Handbook,” a book published to match the requirements for the NFPA Standard for Fire Marshals.