Gov. DeSantis OKs bill reinforcing legal protections for firefighters

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY, 2018 Firefighters spraying down fire during firefighting training exercise
Firefighters want to have protections against informal investigations, like police officers.

Firefighters in Florida will soon gain more legal protection under legislation Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Thursday.

Like police officers, firefighters are guaranteed a handful of rights as part of their employment, such as the presence of a union representative during an investigation. But unlike police officers, firefighters operate without protection against a situation known as an informal investigation.

In those cases, a firefighter may be asked to recall facts or otherwise share work-related details, without knowing of a relevant complaint or inquiry.

The proposal (HB 31) — sponsored by Coral Gables Republican Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera in the House and Clearwater Republican Sen. Ed Hooper in the Senate — would address the loophole and align the Firefighters’ Bill of Rights more closely with the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“Let’s try to change the language to more mirror like the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights (so) there’s no such thing as an informal inquiry, there’s an investigation,” Hooper told Florida Politics in October. “If there’s going to be discipline, you ought to know and be able to have representation with you at the first inquiry, not the second or third.”

The proposal would ensure a level playing field and prevent potential abuses of power by fire chiefs, assert proponents like the Florida Professional Firefighters Association

“We’re accessing people’s houses, taking them at their most vulnerable state,” Wellington Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite, a firefighter and paramedic, said during discussions in the House. “We’re entering buildings unrestricted (and) doing so many different things. A person, if accused, should have the right to have their day in court.”

Boynton Beach Democratic Rep. Joe Casello — a military veteran and former firefighter — described the protections as well deserved. He is among the bill’s many co-sponsors.

“I understand what these men and women go through each and every day,” Casello said. “They put it all on the line to keep us safe. This bill expanding the Firefighters’ Bill of Rights is an important step in the right direction to make sure we are protecting those (who) protect us.”

The bill, approved unanimously by both the House and Senate, will take effect July 1.

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Jason Delgado contributed to this report.

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