Keeping track of cancer detection rates for firefighters across the state and the nation is an action that is long overdue, according to those who fight fires for a living.
Creating a national firefighter cancer registry, an initiative being pushed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, has the strong backing of firefighters in Connecticut.
At a press conference last week, where Blumenthal said he felt there was a “good chance” that Congress would approve the registry “by the end of this year,” Hartford Fire Chief Reginald Freeman said firefighters shouldn’t have to wait any longer for politicians to act.
“Firefighters have a high threat of receiving cancer through absorption, ingestion, or inhalation of cancerous toxins,” Freeman said.
The registry, Blumenthal said, would simply be a database administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would track firefighters’ health histories and the types of cancers firefighters acquire during the course of years on the job.
“If we have evidence, we can take actions” to try and find medical answers to help firefighters and their families dealing with a cancer diagnosis, Blumenthal said.
The registry also could provide valuable information to the medical community on the most prevalent cancers firefighters get, and perhaps help establish new treatment options, Blumenthal said. He added there is already data that shows firefighters have high rates of oral, respiratory, and bladder cancers.
Freeman thanked Blumenthal for pushing the registry cause, saying firefighters deserve “to live long productive lives after they retire.”
Blumenthal said he believes there is bipartisan support in Congress to pass legislation enacting the registry, adding that the cost to do so should be “minimal.” That cost, he said, would be simply having the proper software to compile the information.
“Who can be against this (legislation)?” Blumenthal said. “I think it will have strong support.”
“Nobody works harder than our firefighters,” continued Blumenthal. “They’re protecting America. We should be protecting them.”
The senator added that the job of fighting fires, according to multiple studies, including some conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “has never been more dangerous than now.”
“These men and women run into burning buildings,” Blumenthal said. “There are toxins and poisons in furniture, carpets, and toys. There is mounting evidence that firefighters are more susceptible to cancer than others — and those rates are increasing.”
The registry also has the strong support of T.J. Clarke, president of the Hartford Court of Common Council.
“Our firefighters are our first responders,” Clarke said. “Their families need to know they are being protected.”
The issue of helping fight firefighter cancer isn’t a new one to state politicians.
The General Assembly, last session, approved a bill that will create a relief fund for firefighters who are diagnosed with certain types of cancer related to their job.
The decision to establish the relief fund followed a year of fighting over a bill that would change how the workers’ compensation system works. That bill passed the Senate, but never got called in the House and faced stiff opposition from local elected leaders, who said it would cost them millions of dollars.
This year’s bill, H.B. 5262, requires, to the extent permitted under federal law, an amount from the fee equal to one cent per month per enhanced 911 access line to be remitted from the fee to be deposited in the account the bill establishes. The fund would not be available for another three years and the amount being contributed annually would be capped at $400,000.
The bill goes into effect in February 2017. It had bipartisan support.
The bill will also apply to firefighters who are no longer actively serving, but who otherwise would be eligible for wage replacement benefits. These firefighters may apply for such benefits no more than five years from the date such individuals last served.
In addition to providing wage benefits, this bill also requires firefighters to take preventative measures to avoid contracting cancer. Eligibility for the relief fund requires firefighters to maintain a healthy lifestyle and undergo regular pre-screening for cancer.