WESTFIELD – When Westfield resident and firefighter Greg Heath first started to feel tension in his right hand, there was no way he’d believe that three years later, he would find himself in State Representative John Velis’s office working to pass a piece of historic legislation. Heath, now 43, was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 41, 17 years after he joined the local department. After two years of coming to terms with his diagnosis, Greg has taken action- researching his illness and starting a change.org petition that has collected over 52,000 signatures. He has since teamed up with the Representative, and now they are leading the charge to extend accidental disability benefits to Massachusetts’s firefighters diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
HD1670, An Act relative to Parkinson’s Disease Disability and Death in Firefighters, was presented this session by Representative Velis in collaboration with the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts (PFFM), the union who represents firefighters across the state. If passed, the bill would extend accidental disability benefitsto firefighters who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease by creating a presumption that the illness was incurred in the line of duty. Accidental disability benefits are reserved for those who suffer from injury or illness sustained while on the job. The bill has 59 co-sponsors including Rep Velis.
For Representative Velis, this bill was an obvious choice. “Firefighters are some of the bravest men and women in the Commonwealth. They risk their lives daily, and in the process, put them themselves at risk for all kinds of long-term health effects. We already extend these benefits to firefighters who suffer from heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. With all of the research coming out, it only makes sense that we get proactive and extend these benefits to those suffering from Parkinson’s, as well.”
Though the exact link between firefighting and Parkinson’s is still being determined, the correlation is undeniable. “Studies have shown that Parkinson’s Disease is more common in firefighters than in the general public by a margin of eight to one” says Paul Jacques, Legislative Agent for the PFFM. Rich McKinnon, Jr., PFFM President, says that “every time we respond to a fire, firefighters are exposed to thousands of toxic substances.”- including hydrocarbons, pesticides, carbon monoxide, and manganese- “These chemicals attack the nervous system and are linked to such ailments as Parkinson’s Disease. HD1670… is imperative to protecting our members and their families who suffer from this degenerative disease in the performance of their duties as a firefighter.”
Massachusetts would be the second state to have a presumption on the books after Indiana. Gary Coons, a retired firefighter with Parkinson’s, was instrumental in passing the Indiana law and has become a national leader in the firefighters with Parkinson’s community. “Legislation is important to start to recognize how much has changed from years past, as far as exposures to toxic chemicals at fire scenes…Firefighters risk their lives each tour they work, our goal is to prevent long term health effects from ending their career early and to provide support to those with long-term disabilities that they, and their families, have to live with.”
As for Greg Heath, he is still working for the Westfield Fire Department in the Alarm Division, where he doesn’t often attend to calls. He says his symptoms now include “tremors, slurred speech, shortened gate, slowness in movement, and hunched over posture.”While medication is currently helping relieve Heath’s symptoms, unfortunately, it is still likely he will have to retire early from service. The accidental disability benefits he could receive if this bill passes are crucial- “Parkinson’s is a progressive disease… For those of us struggling with Parkinson’s, walking, talking, grasping, and even blinking become increasingly difficult tasks to accomplish. Needless to say, continuing to work as firefighters while battling this disease is most often not possible… When I can no longer perform my job, this bill would relieve me of much stress, would allow my children to go to college as planned, and would help me to better manage my symptoms by giving me more time to exercise, sleep properly and concentrate on slowing the progression of the disease.”
Says Representative Velis, “It’s truly devastating that so many courageous firefighters are now diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease because of their service. I just hope that I can bring a little relief to those who need it.”