It’s time to start focusing on protecting firefighters’ health

By Amy Klobuchar
Guest Column

Greg Doeden joined the Moorhead Fire Department in 1983 because he wanted to help people. Thirty-four years later, he’s still working – day and night – to keep the city safe. Across the state, firefighters like Greg demonstrate heroism every day. They endure physically and mentally grueling conditions. They have to be able to lift 175 pounds while wearing a full suit of protective gear. They climb ladders and break through doors, windows, and walls all while people’s lives literally depend on them.

But we’re learning in tragic ways that running into a burning building may not be the most dangerous part of the job.

Eight years ago, Greg was diagnosed with colon cancer. He’s a fighter, and his cancer is in remission. But this is a battle that has become all too familiar to firefighters.

Nationally, cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in the U.S. The International Association of Fire Fighters estimates roughly 60 percent of career firefighters will die this way. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, firefighters are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general public.

We’re seeing the numbers born out in Minnesota, too. In Albert Lea, three of the department’s 16 full-time firefighters developed cancer within just one year.

The risks for firefighters have evolved because the nature of fires they’re fighting has changed.

Instead of homes made with wood, glass, and metal, buildings are now loaded with electronic devices like laptops and TVs. And commonplace items like your kids’ dolls or action figures, saran wrap, and flame retardants turn into a toxic cocktail when ignited.
Exposure to the fumes, toxins, and carcinogens that today’s firefighters regularly confront would have been difficult to imagine years ago.

And after a fire’s been put out, black soot and chemicals can stick to firefighters and their gear, heightening risk and prolonging exposure to harmful toxins.

The figures and stories highlight the risks our firefighters face. But the studies are independent and varied. We don’t know the true scope of the problem because we don’t effectively record cancer diagnoses among firefighters.

That’s why I introduced legislation with a bipartisan group of senators to establish a national cancer registry that would track the relationship between firefighters’ exposure to fumes and toxins and cancer. Our bill would mark an important step forward in helping protect firefighters’ health. The data collected would improve our understanding of the environmental risks our firefighters face and better inform prevention techniques. We’ll also take steps to make sure the registry’s being used properly by requiring administrators to regularly consult with public health experts and firefighters. And in addition to career firefighters, we’ll make sure volunteer firefighters are participating. That’s especially important in Minnesota where the vast majority—18,000 of 20,000—firefighters are volunteers.

Finally, we need to make sure fire departments have the right equipment to keep their teams safe. High-tech machines called extractors help do just that, efficiently removing the harmful particulate that can cling to their equipment after they return from a scene. Extractors are critically important to minimizing risk for firefighters and their families, but far too few departments have this technology. A recently-released investigative report found that 26 percent of Minnesota departments do not have an extractor. That’s just not right – which is why I’ll push for funding to help more Minnesota departments purchase extractors for their fire stations.
In taking their oath, firefighters accept an immense responsibility – to put service before self. No matter the hour or risk, firefighters answer the call to keep us safe. The very least we can do is pass commonsense legislation to protect their health.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is the senior senator representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.