Vermont Gov. James Douglas has signed into law two bills, one designed to prevent cigarette-related fire deaths and the other to financially protect firefighters who suffer heart attacks in the line of duty.
One law calls for all cigarettes sold in Vermont to be self-extinguishing by May 2006.
The other ensures that firefighters who suffer work-related heart disease receive workers’ compensation — or their families receive death benefits should they die.
Until now, firefighters who suffered a heart attack, stroke or other heart-related illness within 72 hours of answering an emergency call were forced to prove their illness was job related if insurance companies contested their claim.
The new law gives firefighters the benefit of the doubt, and forces insurance companies to prove otherwise.
The new law, which does not cover volunteer firefighters, brings Vermont in step with 37 other states that recognize that stress associated with being a professional firefighter increases the risk of heart disease, firefighters said.
“We all recognize the extreme mental stress that is incumbent with being a firefighter,” Douglas said at the South Burlington fire station. “This is a small bill in some respects, but rest assured it is an important issue to many firefighters and their families, and will make a big difference in securing the future of those who are injured in the line of duty.”
The new law, which takes effect immediately, was prompted by the 2002 death of Whiting Fire Chief Clarence Birchmore, who suffered a heart attack while responding to a car accident.
Insurance officials rejected his estate’s claim that answering the early morning call triggered the heart attack, and denied death benefits to Birchmore’s widow. The state eventually overturned the decision, but the case raised questions and prompted the law change, Douglas said.
Douglas also signed a law that will make Vermont the second state to require that all cigarettes, when left unattended, extinguish on their own.
The law is based closely on legislation already enacted in New York, and is expected to reduce the number of fire-related deaths caused by cigarettes.
In Vermont, nearly 40 people were killed in cigarette-related fires over the past decade. Between 1999 and 2003, the last year for which statistics are available, 15 of Vermont’s 65 fire deaths were caused by cigarettes.
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