Congresswoman Lois Capps has been busy in 2005, fighting for political change on Capitol Hill and working to improve her 23rd District in California.

Capps presented a $4 million federal grant to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary last week. The grant will fund relocation of the program’s headquarters from Santa Barbara Harbor to a larger site on the UCSB campus. On the national level, Capps, in collaboration with Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis (R-Virginia), introduced an act to Congress Feb. 14 that would expand medical benefits for federal firefighters.

The marine sanctuary will use the grant to build a new administrative and research space next to the Marine Science Institute. The space will help satisfy the educational, research and service needs of the program and will serve as its new headquarters.

Capps, who was able to secure the $4 million appropriation with the help of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said she hopes the new facility will allow the marine sanctuary to undertake more research and educational efforts.

“This is a grant that is a win for everyone involved,” Capps said in a press release. “We are helping researchers and students create valuable new knowledge in marine science, the environment and human health while strengthening our capacity to wisely manage and protect the marine resources on the Central Coast.”

In this term’s congressional session, Capps also introduced the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2005, which extends medical compensation for federal firefighters to include a wider list of occupation-related illnesses. The act would apply to all federal firefighters, including those who serve in the Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Veteran Affairs and the National Park Service.

“Federal firefighters and emergency response personnel provide daily protection for our communities, and they do so at great risk to their own personal health and safety,” Capps said. “It is shameful that we do not offer them the very best in health care and retirement benefits our federal government has to offer.”

Under current federal law, firefighters are only awarded compensation if they are able to document the exact time and place of their injury and prove that it occurred in the line of duty. These stringent requirements, Capps said, make it difficult for federal firefighters to receive compensation for occupational diseases acquired over long periods of time such as heart, liver and lung disease.

“The law requires federal firefighters to indicate the day and time of the incident that caused them injury in order to receive full medical coverage,” said Mike Mascone, vice president of the California Professional Firefighters Association. “Unfortunately, cancer is cumulative, acquired over months and years.”

Firefighters, Mascone said, are more predisposed to acquire serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease due to the nature of their jobs.

“The smoke we breathe and the toxins we come in contact with makes us more susceptible to life-threatening diseases,” Mascone said.

Because firefighters are more prone to life-threatening diseases, federal law should be changed in order to cover all occupational diseases associated with firefighting, Capps said.

“Too frequently, the poisonous gases, toxic byproducts, asbestos and other hazardous substances with which federal firefighters and emergency response personnel come in contact rob them of their health, livelihood and professional careers,” Capps said. “The federal government should not rob them of necessary benefits.”

Thirty-eight states have already implemented legislation similar to the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act on the state and local levels, Mascone said. He said California enacted legislation 10 years ago to cover all occupational diseases associated with firefighting.

“Every firefighter who works in California, either at the state or city level, is covered,” Mascone said.

This is the third consecutive year the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act has been introduced in Congress. Because of other political matters that have taken precedent, Mascone said, the act has not been given the necessary attention in the past.

“[The act] has kind of been lost in the shuffle, with the war in Iraq and the war on terror taking priority,” Mascone said.

Although the act was not passed during the first two attempts, Shannon Lohrmann, Capps’ press secretary, said she thinks the act has a better chance at making it through the congressional process this time.

“This year’s act is a piece of bipartisan legislation, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, so we feel that it might have a fair shot in this session,” Lohrmann said.

In addition to bipartisan support of the act, Mascone said medical evidence could be convincing enough to get the act passed.

“We do have sound medical evidence to prove that [firefighters] die at a younger age because we are predisposed to acquire certain illnesses,” Mascone said. “We are hoping to educate the legislatures with the medical information and we hope to see it pass.”

Given the beaureaucratic nature of the congressional process, Lohrmann said she does not know how long legislators will take to reach a decision.

“It is in the legislative process in Congress right now,” Lohrmann said. “It could take months, or it could take longer. Nobody really knows at this point.”