CHESTER >> As the general election nears in a year his seat is up for election, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., visited the Chester fire house Friday to talk about legislation providing college funds for children of first responders who died in the line of duty.
“This legislation honors our fallen heroes by easing the financial burden on their children who may want to pursue a college education,” the senator said of the Children of Fallen Heroes Scholarship Act. “I think that’s one of the least things we can do as Americans to help those families when they lose a loved one.”
Signed into law on March 23, the law makes children of fallen first responders automatically eligible for the maximum Pell Grant, which in the upcoming 2018-19 school year will be $6,095.
Casey also spoke about Senate Bill 382, the Firefighters Cancer Registry Act, which would establish a nationalized cancer registry related to cancer among firefighters.
“We all know that for firefighters that they’re at increased risk of contracting several major cancers so it only makes sense to dedicate resources needed to investigate this issue,” he said.
Chester Fire Chief Steve Quigley explained that was an issue that resonated with his department as about 20 members had died related to diseases associated with fighting the Wade Dump fire of 1978. Unsuspecting firefighters responded to what they thought was a rubber fire on Feb. 2, 1978, but it turned out to be a site with tens of thousands of illegally stored drums of toxic waste exploding. It was eventually identified as a Superfund site and led to the establishment of hazardous materials responding protocol.
“The effects of that through their life, the people that were actually there and fought that fire, 15, 20, 30 years later, they’ve had health issues still,” Quigley said.
Co-sponsored by Casey, the registry act currently sits in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Speaking to the unionized firefighters, the senator also addressed his concern regarding the removal of the union fees deduction with the recent tax reform.
“They took away the deduction for union dues,” he said. “That’s a bad idea. It was bad policy and we’ve got to change it.”
He said he introduced the Tax Fairness for Workers Act, which would restore the union fees deduction while also allowing the deduction for unreimbursed employee expenses like uniforms, tools and travel costs in seeking work.
His opponents offered their thoughts on Casey’s visit.
“As a co-sponsor of the Children of Fallen Heroes Scholarship Act, I believe when a community tragically loses a first responder in the line of duty, all Pennsylvanians agree we must lend support to their families and honor their legacy,” said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, of Hazleton, Pa., the Republican-nominated senatorial candidate. “First responders sacrifice all to keep our families and communities safe.”
Dale Kerns, the Libertarian candidate from Haverford, said education shouldn’t be financed, but that reducing addiction could help reduce first responders’ risk.
“As someone that respects the service others provide to the community, the brother of three firefighters, relative to police officers and a former councilman who donated his stipend back to the community, including 50 percent to the fire department, I believe the sentiment behind such a bill is good and comes from a good place in one’s heart,” Kerns said. “But I feel government should stay out of the business of financing schooling ... The role of government is not to finance college, but rather to make sure that colleges and universities are free to operate in a fair and efficient marketplace in order to ensure that they are providing a superb education at an affordable cost,” he said.
Kerns said government has failed in the area of student loans, resulting in tuition costs “with education declining and the amount of people with degrees being jobless continuing to rise.”
He added, “Alternatively, I think a better solution is to create less fallen heroes.”
Kerns said ending the opioid epidemic and ending the war on drugs will help keep deadly doses laced with Fentanyl off the street.
“Instead of finding ways to give people free stuff, I think we should find ways to keep (first responders’) loved ones safe and alive,” he said.
Quigley was thankful for the senator’s visit to his 60-career firefighter company.
“Any time that you get any kind of support towards our profession and things that affect our lives and our families’ lives as a result of the job, it’s great to see somebody have us in their mind and in their hearts,” the chief said.