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Fighting fires, combating cancer

February 3, 2019

Even after they have extinguished the flames, firefighters are putting themselves at risk, exposing themselves to toxins in the smoke.

A new federal law, coupled with local prevention efforts, looks to not only keep track of instances of firefighter cancer but prevent them from happening.

“The more I read the numbers, the more research I do, the more I teach this class, the more I learn and realize how important it is,” said Rochester Fire Department Capt. Caleb Feine. “We love what we do, but there is a better way to do it. There is a safer way to do it also.”

In early January, the Rochester Fire Department held a series of training sessions to update department members on cancer prevention protocol. While the training was held at Station 1, firefighters at the department’s other stations participated by video conference.

At the start of the program, Feine asked the dozen or so firefighters how they had been doing, not breathing smoke, minimizing exposure and following the department’s new decontamination protocols.

“Better, but not great,” one firefighter responded.

“I’ve been doing pretty awesome with it,” another said.

“We can always do better,” Feine said. “There are always opportunities where, really, we probably should have done more. There are still times when dirty gear is worn inside the trucks.”

Departments around the nation are taking steps to reduce their exposure to carcinogens in smoke and diesel exhaust.

In May 2017, the Pine Island City Council voted unanimously to approve the purchase of a diesel exhaust extraction unit for the firehouse to help remove the fumes from trucks when they are running in the garage.

In the Rochester Fire Department, each firefighter has two sets of gear. Extractors — large washing machines — are also at each station, which allows firefighters to wash their gear after every call where there may have been exposure to smoke.

“They are specially designed to do just that, extract anything (harmful) that is in the gear that we wear,” Feine said.

While departments across the region are working to make firefighting safer, efforts at the state level to better aid firefighters after a cancer diagnosis have stalled.

Diagnosed with cancer in March 2014, Steve Shapira, the state director for the Minnesota chapter of the national nonprofit Firefighter Cancer Support Network, said he hadn’t heard anything about occupational firefighter cancer until he got it.

He’s been cancer free since October 2014 and had his last round of chemotherapy in December 2016. He said his cancer forced him to retire from his position as a captain with the St. Paul Fire Department in July 2015.

“There was definitely a lack of awareness in the state of Minnesota,” Shapira said. “I always tell people, like food or fashion trends, things start on the coasts and then get to the Midwest. The entire state has been behind on this, educationally speaking.”

A bill introduced during the 2017-2018 legislative session by Rep. Jeff Howe and Rep. Tama Theis sought to expand the definition of a presumptive occupational disease to include 14 types of cancers for firefighters and volunteer firefighters, both active and retired.

When something becomes a “presumptive occupational disease” it shifts the burden of proof to a department or an insurer if they were to fight a claim. The bill was sent to the Commerce and Regulatory Reform committee and was never adopted.

During the same legislative session, a bill was introduced that sought to expand the collection of data on incidences of firefighter cancer. That bill was sent to the Health and Human Services Finance committee.

Although a state bill did not pass, a similar bill passed on the federal level.

In July, bipartisan legislation to create a national cancer registry for firefighters diagnosed with cancer was signed into the law. The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act calls on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor and study the relationship between career-long exposure to dangerous fumes and toxins and the incidence of cancer in firefighters, Klobuchar’s office said at the time.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, along with then-Sen. Al Franken.

“Across Minnesota, I’ve met with many firefighters battling cancer,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “Our brave firefighters already expose themselves to so many dangers every day — we should be doing everything we can to make sure cancer isn’t one of them.”

Money to establish the registry, $1 million, was part of the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill for the Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The money will be used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which has been tasked with taking the lead in establishing the registry.

Once established, findings that come from registry data will be available to the public.

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