Vice President Joe Biden praises union work and firefighter's life-saving duties to the International Association of Fire Fighters on Monday. Haley Hinkle/MNS

Vice President Joe Biden praises union work and firefighter’s life-saving duties to the International Association of Fire Fighters on Monday. Haley Hinkle/MNS

WASHINGTON—Vice President Joe Biden said Monday the nation’s firefighters, in their duty to save lives and protect property, help people in the communities they serve achieve the American dream.

“Where is it written that the middle class dream cannot be an achievable goal,” for anyone willing to work for it, the vice president asked. “…You make it possible for people to live basic, middle-class lives.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union that represents approximately 300,000 fire fighters and first responders across the U.S. and Canada, will lobby Congress this week on issues such as pension protection and funding for local fire departments.

The emphasis of the conference was continued legislative support of firefighter safety and union activity.

During the event, Biden recalled what he told firefighters while on the campaign trail as a Senate candidate at age 29. “There’s three political parties in Delaware. There’s Democrats, Republicans, and firefighters,” he said.

Biden said firefighters are among the most “underappreciated” people in the U.S. “I believe we have an obligation to equip and support you when we send you into harm’s way,” he said.

Biden said that the U.S. needs to provide firefighters and first responders with the resources they need, including additional personnel at their local stations. He also cited his many years of support for unions.

IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said the association will fight on Capitol Hill to safeguard benefits and to defeat Sen. Orrin Hatch’s SAFE Retirement Act.

The Utah Republican’s bill deals with public employee pensions in a way that IAFF members fear will threaten the security of firefighters’ retirement funds.

Firefighters will also address the issue of carcinogenic ash this week. Repeated exposure to substances such as flame retardant particles has raised health concerns. A recent Center for Disease Control study found increased evidence of a relationship between fire fighting activity and instances of lung cancer and leukemia.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., told the conference that he is working on the problem through proposed reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Changes in the law would allow the EPA to regulate more chemicals, such as ones in flame retardants, Booker said.

Senate Minority whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also addressed the conference.

“Organized labor has been there, fighting on behalf of the American people. That’s what unions do,” Warren said.

Warren has insisted she will not run for president next year, but the first-term senator, as well as Biden, keep getting mentioned as possible Democratic candidates. On Tuesday, the conference will hear from more potential presidential candidates.